Imagine for a moment that you signed up to partake in a social psychology research project about learning. You randomly pick the assignment of being the “teacher”. Your assignment is to help the “student” learn a set of word combinations and test the impact of negative stimuli. In this case the negative stimuli is electric shocks that get stronger each time the “student” gets the wrong answer. The volt level goes all the way to 450. In the room with you is a man in a white lab coat who calmly tells you to continue. Would you sit there and give the full 450 volt shock? What if the “student” could be heard screaming in the other room? If he had a heart condition? If he was in the same room? And at any time you could get up and leave the room.
That in short was the 1961 Stanley Milgram Experiment on Obedience. He wasn’t actually testing the impact of negative stimuli on learning. He was testing to find out how people responded to authority; and if they would go against their own morals and beliefs to obey. Before he conducted the experiment he asked others what they thought would happen. The majority of people, including his colleagues, believed that very few people would partake let alone give the full 450 volt shock. What Milgram learned was that defiance was the anomaly; not the norm. 65% of participants in the original experiment setting administered the full 450 volt shock. Migram did conduct nineteen variations on his own experiment to see if location, room setting, male vs. female, etc. had an impact.
Milgrams interpretation of what happened:
- Theory of conformism: a subject who has neither the ability or expertise to make decisions, including and especially in a crisis, will leave the decision making to the group and its hierarchy.
- The Agentic State Theory: Milgram described it as, “the essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view themselves as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and they therefore no longer see themselves as responsible for their actions. Once this critical shift of viewpoint has occurred in the person, all of the essential features of obedience follow.”
- The experimenters physical presence had an impact on his authority. If the orders were given by phone obedience dropped off sharply, although if the experimenter returned to the lab he could induce the subject to go on.
- Conflicting authority paralyzed action. When two experimenters of equal status gave incompatible orders no shocks were given past the point of disagreement.
- The rebellious action of others severely undermined authority. In one of the variations on his experiment Milgram performed he had three “teachers”. Two of the teachers were “actors” and one was the real subject. When the two actors disobeyed and refused to go beyond a shock level 36 of 40 subjects joined their disobedience and refused to as well.
The experiment has been repeated multiple times over the years and each time similar, if not the same, results have been seen. A few examples are below:
- Charles Sheridan and Richard King in 1972 recreated the experiment using a puppy as the student. The puppy was given real, but harmless, shocks. They found that 54% of the male subjects and all of the females obeyed throughout even during what appeared to be great emotional stress. Some openly wept. The higher the shock level the more hesitation.
- In 2006 Darren Brown recreated the experiment as part of his UK special The Heist (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xxq4QtK3j0Y).
- In 2009 psychologist Jerry Burger at Santa Clara University recreated Milgrams experiment. They modified the experiment to only deliver 150 volts and participants were carefully screened. The results were the same as what Milgram found. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JnYUl6wlBF4)
In 2015 a movie call The Experimenter (the trailer is below) was released that goes over the experiment and Milgrams life. His other experiments are briefly covered in the movie. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O1VOZhwRvWo)
The movie is worthwhile to take the time to watch. It did a good job of covering the obedience experiment, Milgrams findings, and the reaction. It also covers the other experiments that he did and some of his life.
Here is a video done by UT McCombs School of Business that discusses some other studies, and interviews with people about situations where they followed their boss’ instructions even if it went against their own morals and ethics: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xw-L-ljrzbo)
Updated on 1/12/2017: Link to the original Milgram experiment video went bad. Updated with a new one.
Updated on 12/28/2017 to put in a corrected link to the original Milgram video.