The Milgram experiment was a one of the most seminal experiments in all of psychology and specifically in social psychology. It was done by Stanley Milgram at Yale University and published in 1963. The study focused on obedience to authority and showed that people were willing to perform dangerous and even deadly actions against other people under instruction from an authority figure.
The central tenant that Milgram wanted to address revolved around the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi war criminal. Eichmann insisted throughout his trial that he was "only following orders." Milgram wanted to know "Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?" To answer this question Milgram recruited 40 men between 20 and 50 to participate an in experiment that would test their willingness to harm another person while "only following orders."
The subject was brought into the room and met with another individual they were told was also a volunteer (in actuality it was someone working for the experiment, a confederate). The researcher told both participants they would be participating in an experiment that would test the effects of punishment on learning.
Then the researcher presented the subject and the confederate with a piece of paper which they were told either said teacher or learner. The subject thought there was a 50 percent chance he would be one or the other, but in reality the subject was always the teacher and the confederate always the learner. Afterwards, the confederate went behind a wall and the subject sat at a desk with what looked like an electric-shock generator.
The subject was given a list of words that were paired together. He was instructed to read the word pairs to the other individual and then say the first word and ask what word was paired with it. The subject gave four possible answers and the learner would push a button that would light up in front of the teacher to signify the answer. The teacher was then suppose to give a shock if the answer was wrong, or move on to the next word if correct. For each wrong answer the shock voltage would be turned up a notch.
The subject was under the impression a real electric shock was given each time. But in reality no shock was ever administered. Instead the activating of the eletric-shock generator would play a clip from an audio tape that gave more and more distraught responses. The confederate would, after a few shocks, pound on the wall and complain about a heart condition. A few shocks later the confederate would cease all communications.
At various times the subject was likely to protest to the researcher about the experiment, the purpose or the dangers to the other individual. At any time the researcher would simply offer only one of these responses:
- Please continue.
- The experiment requires that you continue.
- It is absolutely essential that you continue.
- You have no other choice, you must go on.
If the subject still wanted to stop the experiment after all four verbal prods then it would be stopped. If the subject did not stop, the experiment would end after the maximum voltage of 450v was administered for the third time.
Many people when they first hear about the outline of the experiment often predict only a few people will proceed to the maximum voltage. In fact, Milgram asked 19 psychology majors before the experiment what they thought would happen. The average was that barely over one percent would go all the way.
The results are often surprising the first time you see them: 26 out of the 40 participants (65 percent) administered the full shock; not a single subject stopped before 300 volts. All the subjects at one point at least expressed concern, many offering to give back their compensation if they could quit, but with the single sentence prod from the researcher they continued. Of the subjects that did stop early, none checked on the learner, or inquired about their welfare.
Several other studies have replicated Milgram's work, with over 60 percent being the standard number of individuals that are willing to deliver a fatal shock.
Reactions and criticisms
By today's standards such an experiment would never receive ethical approval. The emotional distress caused to the subject would be viewed as too severe. Also the debriefing done after the experiment was not adequate by modern standards. However, all the participants in Milgram's study were polled at a later date and asked about how they felt about participating. Close to 90 percent said they were "glad" or "very glad" they did so. Many wanted to join his lab and help with his work afterwards.
The interpretations of the results and the ethical dilemmas surrounding it were instantly a hot topic. To this day psychology courses across the world focus on Milgram's work.
- Milgram, Stanley. (1974), Obedience to Authority; An Experimental View. Harpercollins (ISBN 0-06-131983-X).