Classic and Contemporary Research into Obedience

What does it mean to be obedient? Milgram conducted a powerfully influential experiment to test the limits of obedient behaviours in 1961, which is noted as one of the most classical research studies into obedience. What do contemporary research studies of obedience show us today, and are there any note differences?

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Table of contents
    • First, we will look at perhaps the most famous study into obedience, Milgram's (1961) obedience study.
    • After that, we will look at a contemporary study into obedience by Bocchario et al. (2012).
    • Finally, we will learn about Burger’s (2009) contemporary study replicated Milgram’s study. We will discuss what made Burger’s study more ethical and valid.

    Milgram (1961) Obedience Experiment

    There are a few key differences between classic and contemporary research into obedience. A lot of time has passed since classic research took place, i.e., contemporary research exists in the context of more recent research and research practices that have come to light. Contemporary research can often correct or avoid mistakes earlier studies made.

    Contemporary research abides by stricter ethical guidelines and avoids the morally grey areas of many notable classic studies.

    Let’s look at classic and contemporary research into obedience and compare where they differ and what we can learn from them. Milgram conducted the experiment mentioned in the introduction in 1961, and many subsequent variations followed.

    The Milgram Experiment Summary

    Milgram aimed to determine why seemingly ordinary people (for example, those under the Nazi regime) could commit heinous acts. While some people took the reductive dispositional viewpoint that something innate to the German people resulted in this historical tragedy, Milgram was not satisfied with this answer and attempted to seek an environmental cause

    Milgram set up a simple experiment. There was an experimenter, participants were assigned the role of teacher and there was an actor confederate (a person working with the experiment, aware of the conditions) assigned the role of learner. The teacher was told to give the learner a set of words to pair with another word depending on the condition’s parameters.

    Classic and contemporary research into obedience, diagram of the Milgram 1961 experiment, StudySmarterFig 1. - Overview of Milgram (1961) experiment, E = experimenter, T = teacher, L = learner

    If the learner gave an incorrect response, the experimenter would order the teacher to shock the learner. The shocks grew in intensity with each wrong answer and were labelled from ‘slight shock’ to ‘XXX’. Milgram measured the highest intensity of shocks the teachers gave.

    While the shocks were not real, the learner would react as if they were painful. If this disturbed the teachers and they expressed doubts about delivering shocks, the experimenter would give them ‘prods’, verbal encouragement such as ‘the experiment requires you to continue, which often worked.

    Stanley Milgram Experiment Results

    The experiment found that participants obeyed until 300 volts. At 300v, the learner would go silent, implying severe pain or harm. At that point, some participants refused to deliver shocks, even after being given the prods. 65% of participants continued until the final 450-volt shock. Milgram concluded that given the right set of circumstances, anyone would commit horrible acts, and the Nazis were unfortunately not unique in their cruelty.

    Milgram decided the circumstances included:

    • The legitimacy of the location (a prestigious university).
    • The legitimacy of the authority figure (a smartly dressed older man in a lab coat).
    • The legitimacy of the cause (advancing scientific understanding of memory and learning).

    Ethical considerations of Milgram's experiment

    One of the biggest differences between classic and contemporary research is that contemporary research operates under stricter ethical guidelines. One of the most common criticisms of Milgram’s work is that his study was unethical. Let’s look at how:

    • Milgram deceived his participants, hiding the true nature of the experiment from them and placing them in a situation they were not prepared for.
    • Due to hiding the true aim of the experiment, his participants could not give informed consent.
    • Since Milgram’s participants truly believed they were delivering extremely powerful and painful shocks to another human being, many experienced and showed signs of psychological distress.
    • Milgram’s participants were also not given the right of withdrawal, even when showing clear signs of distress. They were urged to continue with four prods, each increasing in seriousness.

    Classic and Contemporary Research on Obedience

    Milgram’s experiment is a classic research study into the boundaries of obedience, but contemporary research showcases noted differences. What are these differences, and what were these studies?

    Effects on research at the time: Bocchario et al. (2012)

    With his study, Milgram offered insight into the potential acts of those under an authority figure and allowed people to understand everyone is susceptible to these issues. Bocchario et al. (2012) came to similar conclusions, using Milgram’s experiment as a basis for their study on disobedience and whistleblowing. Bocchario et al. (2012) was a laboratory study with volunteer sampling and no independent variable. Bocchario used students for his study. There were two groups of students.

    The first group of 138 students were informed about an unethical sensory deprivation study the university was considering and wanted students’ opinions. They were asked to predict if they would obey, disobey, or whistleblow the experimenter. What would average students at the university do in this situation? This group of students also had to write statements recommending the participation of the unethical study to other students. They were told not to mention the negative effects the potential participating students would suffer from. The students were told their statements had to sound enthusiastic and use two adjectives from the choices of ‘exciting’, ‘incredible’, ‘great’, and ‘superb’. Students could anonymously whistleblow about the study. The first group predicted that if they were in the experiment, 3.6% would obey, 31.9% would disobey, and 64.5% would be whistleblowers (anonymous or open whistleblowers). For the actions of other students, they predicted that 18.8% would obey, 43.9% would disobey, and 37.3% would whistle blow.

    Experimental Results of Bocchario et al. (2012)

    One hundred forty-nine students were involved in the actual experimental condition. 76.5% obeyed the experimenter, a stark difference from the original 3.6% that the first group insinuated would be the case for themselves. Only 14.1% disobeyed, and a mere 9.4% were whistleblowers, again, a considerable difference from the original answers the first group gave.

    The Contemporary Aspect of Bocchario et al. (2012)

    The recent study of Bocchiaro et al. offered a new insight into different aspects of the population, how they would respond to authority figures, and their willingness to obey. Both Milgram and Bocchario question this authority. However, Bocchario suffers from limited generalisability as the sample was based on students.

    Burger’s Replication of Milgram (2009)

    Burger’s experiment is a contemporary take on Milgram’s electric shock experiment. The procedure remains mostly the same, but a few key differences make his work important to our understanding of obedience. Most notably, Burger conducted a more ethical take on Milgram’s experiment and changed the independent variable to make the results more valid and holistic.

    Burger specifically focused on variations of Milgram’s study:

    • The idea of the learner confederate supposedly having a heart condition.
    • The occurrence of a second teacher confederate would go against the experimenter’s wishes by repeatedly trying to get the participant to stop.

    How did Burger make his replication more ethical?

    Burger did several things to make his replication of Milgram’s study more ethical in terms of procedure, sampling and treatment of participants. When looking at Milgram’s heart condition variation, Burger realised that all participants who refused to obey and give in to authority would do so at the 150-volt level, refusing to go any further.

    He then realised that the participants who did obey would continue to deliver shocks to the highest level of 450 volts. Burger marked this as an essential point to consider, believing that this represented a moral “point” or "point of no return" that those who were not authoritarian-minded would refuse to cross.

    Burger decided it would be more ethical to run the experiment up to 150 volts. He believed he could now reasonably assume that participants willingly progressing past this point would likely continue to the end. This would spare everyone involved from the unpleasant effects of the original Milgram study, which included stress and anxiety.

    Participants were also treated much more ethically in Burger’s procedure. They were informed well in advance they had a right to withdraw from the experiment whenever they felt the need to. Participants were also immediately informed the shocks were not real and that the learner confederate was unharmed when the experiment ended.

    In Burger's replication, the experimenter was a clinical psychologist who would respond swiftly and appropriately in the event of any participants experiencing distress.

    Like Milgram, Burger used a volunteer sample method to advertise the study through digital and print media. They were offered payment simply just for signing up before the study started. Unlike Milgram, Burger carefully screened his participants, first for knowledge of psychology and the original Milgram experiment and then for factors that may make them especially prone to distress when taking part, such as mental health and drug-related issues.

    How was Burger’s research more valid?

    Potential participants were informed well in advance that despite the experimenter’s prods, they had the right to withdraw from the experiment whenever needed. While Milgram’s study of situational factors was important and accurate, Burger believed that he would need to test for dispositional factors to gain a more precise understanding of obedience. Burger’s main dispositional focuses were empathy and’ locus of control’ ( a person’s beliefs and perceptions about how much control they have over the events in their lives).

    Those with an internal locus of control typically believe that their actions have the greatest effect on their lives and the events that occur in them. People with an external locus of control believe that other factors such as luck, environment and even the decisions of those much more powerful than them have the greatest effect on their lives.

    What did Burger's study accomplish?

    Burger aimed to see if he could achieve the same results as Milgram with a new set of modern-day participants and to see if he could discover whether the ‘disobedient model’ affected the results. In a replication of the original electric shock experiment, Burger used an independent group design to compare how participants acted in the variation where there was a second teacher who encouraged the participant to stop.

    As a result, Burger’s replication was more holistic than Milgram’s original study. Burger’s results were largely similar to Milgram’s original study, which cements its importance and relevance even today, despite its ethical concerns.

    Classic and Contemporary Research into Obedience - Key takeaways

    • Classic research took place in the past, while contemporary research is either recent or ongoing, utilising modern technology.
    • Two critical differences between classic and contemporary research are that contemporary research is often more ethical and has the benefit of having a long history of research to draw from, making it more holistic.
    • Milgram’s experiment was useful because its results are still valid today, but it was unethical (lack of consent to the true aim of the study, continual deception, extreme levels of stress, etc.).
    • Bocchario et al. (2012) indicated how students believed they would disobey in hypothetical situations of unethical practices and insisted they would whistleblow.
    • While Burger’s study would not be possible without the groundwork Milgram laid, he could conduct a more ethical and holistic version of Milgram’s experiment.


    1. Fig 1. - Milgram experiment ( by Fred the Oyster, licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Classic and Contemporary Research into Obedience

    What is classic research in obedience?

    An example of classic research in obedience is Milgram's study of obedience. Milgram aimed to determine why seemingly ordinary people (for example, those under the Nazi regime) could commit heinous acts.

    Which researcher published classic studies on obedience?

    Milgram published classic studies on obedience.

    What is the focus of classic and contemporary research?

    Classic and contemporary research focuses on understanding how to conduct good psychological research.

    What did Milgram’s study suggest about obedience?

    Milgram’s study suggested obedience was a product of environmental factors, such as location and authority figures.

    What is Milgram’s classic research?

    Milgram’s classic research refers to his studies into obedience.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Is Burger’s study classic or contemporary?

    Milgram (1961) study found that most people continued to obey and give shocks until the highest 450v level.

    Did Milgram focus on situational or dispositional factors?


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