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Milgram Experiment

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Milgram Experiment

What do you know about the Milgram experiment? Imagine you’re given a gun and ordered to shoot at an unarmed stranger. What would it take for you to pull the trigger? Would someone have to threaten your life or your family to be obedient, or would you refuse no matter what? Although it seems like an unlikely scenario, this happened to Ishmael Beah.

When he was 13, Ishmael was separated from his parents because of the civil war in his home country, Sierra Leone. After 6 months of wandering the country on his own, he was recruited by the rebel army and became a child soldier.

Today, there are around 100,000 child soldiers around the world that are kidnapped and forced to fight and kill. If they refuse to obey orders, they are beaten or threatened. Many political and charity campaigns are fighting to get countries to stop using child soldiers. Luckily Ishmael was freed with the help of one of these charities.

Children are known to be more vulnerable to being coerced into obeying than adults. But what other factors determine whether a human will or won’t display a specific behaviour in response to a command? Is it just part of some people’s nature, or do the circumstances determine whether people obey? Finding the answers to these questions is a major topic in social psychology.

Summary of the Milgram experiment

A year after the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a high-ranking officer in Nazi Germany, Stanley Milgram (1963) carried out a series of experiments to investigate why and to what extent people obey authority. Eichmann’s legal defence and that of many other Nazis prosecuted after the holocaust was: ‘We were just following orders’.

Were these Germans particularly obedient people, or is it just part of human nature to follow orders by someone in authority? This is what Milgram wanted to find out in his psychology experiment.

What was the aim of Milgram’s experiment?

Milgram’s first obedience test investigated destructive obedience. He continued to investigate many specific variations in his later experiments in 1965 and mostly focused on situational influences on obedience such as location, uniforms, and proximity.

After his first study, he went on to develop his agency theory which offers some explanations as to why people obey.

Participants in Milgram’s obedience to authority experiment

Forty male participants from different professional backgrounds from the local area around Yale in Connecticut, between 20-50 years of age were recruited through a newspaper advertisement and paid $4.50 per day to participate in a study on memory.

How was Milgram’s experiment conducted?

When participants arrived at Milgram’s lab at Yale University in Connecticut, they were told that they were participating in an experiment about punishment in learning. An individual participant and a confederate (‘Mr. Wallace’) would draw numbers out of a hat to see which one would take on the role of ‘learner’ or ‘teacher’. The draw was rigged so that the participant would always end up as the ‘teacher’. There was also a third person involved; an ‘experimenter’ wearing a grey lab coat, who represented the authority figure.

The participant would witness the ‘learner’ being strapped into an ‘electric chair’ in the neighbouring room and he and the ‘experimenter’ would sit on the other side of a wall. The participant was instructed to run through a set of learning tasks with the ‘learner’. Each time the ‘learner’ got an answer wrong, the ‘experimenter’ was to turn up the voltage by one unit and deliver a shock until the ‘learner’ had achieved the task without error.

The study was designed so that no real shocks were administered and the ‘learner’ was never going to succeed in his memory task. The experiment was designed to be open-ended so that the participant’s conscience alone would determine the outcome of the experiment.

Milgram Experiment Milgram experiment setup StudySmarterMilgram experiment setup: E= experimenter, T= teacher, L=learner, Wikimedia Commons

The levels of voltage that the participant was administering was clearly labelled and ranged from 15 volts (slight shock) to 300 volts (Danger: severe shock) and 450 volts (XXX). They were informed that the shocks would be painful but cause no permanent tissue damage and given a sample shock of 45 volts (fairly low) to prove that the shocks actually hurt.

While carrying out the procedure, the ‘learner’ would provide standardised reactions. When the voltages got beyond 300 volts, the ‘learner’ would start pleading for the ‘teacher’ to stop, saying he wanted to leave, shout, pound the wall, and at 315 volts, there would be no responses given from the ‘learner’ anymore at all.

Usually, around the 300 volts mark, the participant would ask the ‘experimenter’ for guidance. Each time the ‘teacher’ tried to protest or asked to leave, the ‘experimenter’ would reinforce the instructions using a script of four stock answers in sequence, called prods.

Prod 1: ‘Please continue’, or ‘Please go on.’

Prod 2: ‘The experiment requires that you continue.’

Prod 3: ‘It is absolutely essential that you continue.’

Prod 4: ‘You have no other choice, you must go on.’

There were also similar standardised responses the ‘experimenter’ gave when asked whether the subject was going to be harmed by the shocks.

If the subject asked if the learner was liable to suffer permanent physical injury, the experimenter said:

‘Although the shocks may be painful, there is no permanent tissue damage, so please go on.’

If the subject said that the learner did not want to go on,

the experimenter replied:

‘Whether the learner likes it or not, you must go on until he has learned all the word pairs correctly. So please go on.’

What were the results of Milgram’s obedience experiment?

All of the participants went up to 300 volts. Five of the participants (12.5%) stopped at 300 volts when the first signs of distress by the learner appeared. Thirty five (65%) went up to the highest level of 450 volts, a result that neither Milgram nor his students anticipated.

Participants also showed intense signs of tension and distress including nervous laughing fits, groaning, ‘digging fingernails into their flesh’ and convulsions. For one participant the experiment had to be cut short because they had started having a seizure.

Milgram’s experiment indicates that it is normal to obey legitimate authority figures, even if the order goes against our conscience.

After the study, all the participants were told of the hoax and debriefed, including meeting the ‘learner’ again.

Conclusion of Milgram’s obedience to authority experiment

All of the study participants obeyed the authority figure when asked to go against their better judgement rather than refuse to proceed. Although they were met with resistance, all study participants had been informed at the start that they could stop the experiment at any point. Milgram argued that it’s normal for humans to give in to destructive obedience when pressured.

What was surprising about Milgram’s experiment was how easy it was to get people to be destructive - participants obeyed even in the absence of force or threat. Milgram’s results speak against the idea that particular groups of people are more prone to obedience than others.

For your exam, you might be asked how Milgram measured the level of obedience of his participants, as well as how variables were controlled in the laboratory.

Strengths and weaknesses of Milgram’s experiment

First, let us explore the contributions and positive aspects overall of Milgram’s experiment.


Some of its strengths include:

Operationalisation of human behaviour

In psychology, operationalisation means to be able to measure invisible human behaviour in numbers. It’s a major part of making psychology a legitimate science that can produce objective results. This allows for comparison of people with each other and statistical analysis as well as comparison with other similar experiments that happen in other places in the world and even in future. By creating a fake shocking apparatus, Milgram was able to measure in numbers to which extent humans would obey authority.


The control of variables through set prods, a unified setting, and procedure means that it’s more likely that the results of Milgram’s experiment produced internally valid results. This is a strength of laboratory experiments in general; because of the controlled environment, it is more likely that the researcher can measure what they set out to measure.


With the shock experiment, Milgram was able to reproduce a similar result with forty different participants. After his first experiment, he also went on to test many different variables that could influence obedience.


There were numerous criticisms and debates surrounding Milgram’s obedience experiment. Let’s explore a couple of examples.

External validity

There is some debate about whether Milgram’s obedience study has external validity. Even though conditions were strictly controlled, the laboratory experiment is an artificial situation and this might factor into how the participants behaved. Orne and Holland (1968) thought that the participants might have guessed that they were not really harming anyone. This casts doubt on whether the same behaviour would be seen in real life - what is known as ecological validity.

However, some factors speak for the external validity of Milgram’s study, one example being a similar experiment having been conducted in a different setting. Hofling et al. (1966) conducted a similar study to Milgram, but in a hospital setting. Nurses were instructed to administer an unknown drug to a patient over the phone by a doctor they didn’t know. In the study, 21 out of 22 nurses (95%) were heading to give the drug to the patient before being intercepted by the researchers. On the other hand, when this experiment was replicated by Rank and Jacobson (1977) using a known doctor and known drug (Valium), only two out of 18 nurses (10%) carried out the order.

The debate about internal validity

The internal validity was questioned after Perry (2012) examined the tapes of the experiment and noted that many participants expressed doubts that the shocks were real to the ‘experimenter’. This might indicate that what was displayed in the experiment was not genuine behaviour but rather the effect of unconscious or conscious influence by the researchers.

Biased sample

The sample was made up exclusively of American men, so it’s not clear whether the same results would be obtained using other gender groups or cultures. To investigate this, Burger (2009) partially replicated the original experiment using a mixed male and female American sample with diverse ethnic backgrounds and a broader age range. The results were similar to Milgram’s, showing that gender, ethnic background, and age might not be contributing factors to obedience.

There have been many replications of Milgram’s experiment in other Western countries and most have delivered similar results; however, Shanab’s (1987) replication in Jordan showed remarkable differences in that Jordanian students were significantly more likely to obey across the board. This raises the question of whether there is a difference in levels of obedience in different cultures.

Ethical issues with Milgram’s experiment

Although the participants were debriefed and 83.7% of them went away from the experiment satisfied, the experiment itself was ethically problematic. Using deception in a study means that the participants can’t give their full consent as they don’t know what they’re agreeing to.

Also, keeping participants in an experiment against their will is a violation of their autonomy, but Milgram’s four stock answers (prods) meant that the participants were denied their right to leave. It is the researcher’s responsibility to ensure that no harm comes to the participants, but in this study, the signs of mental distress became so extreme that the study subjects went into convulsions.

At the time that Milgram carried out his experiment into obedience, there were no official research ethics standards. It was studies like that of Milgram and Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison experiment that forced psychologists to put ethics rules and regulations in place. However, ethics rules aren’t as strict outside of the scientific context, so replications of the experiment can still be carried out for entertainment purposes on TV shows.

Milgram Experiment - Key takeaways

  • Milgram investigated obedience to legitimate authority in his 1963 study. He found that when pressured by an authority figure, 65% of people would shock another person with dangerous levels of electricity. This indicates that it is normal behaviour for humans to obey authority figures.
  • The strengths of Milgram’s obedience experiment were that the laboratory setting allowed for a controlling of many variables, internal validity was good as well as reliability.
  • Criticisms of Milgram’s obedience experiment include that the results might not be applicable in the real world and across cultures. Also, as the participants weren’t told the truth about what they were being tested on, it’s considered an unethical experiment by today’s standards.

Frequently Asked Questions about Milgram Experiment

The Milgram obedience experiment showed that when pressured, most people will obey orders that could be harmful to other people.

The criticisms of Milgram’s research were that the laboratory experiment can’t be applied to situations in the real world, so his conclusions can’t be taken as indicators of true human nature. Also, the experiment was unethical. As the sample used for Milgram’s obedience experiment were mainly American men, there is also the question of whether his conclusions apply to other genders as well as across cultures.

The Milgram obedience experiment was unethical because the study participants were misled about the real aim of the experiment, meaning they couldn’t consent, and it caused extreme distress to some of the participants.

The Milgram obedience experiment is considered reliable because variables were mainly controlled and the results are reproducible.

Milgram’s first obedience test investigated destructive obedience. He continued to investigate many specific variations in his later experiments in 1965 and mostly focused on situational influences on obedience such as location, uniforms, and proximity.

Final Milgram Experiment Quiz


What did Milgram’s study investigate?

Show answer


Milgram’s obedience experiment investigated destructive obedience

 in a sample of American males in the 1960’s.

Show question


What was the outcome of Milgram’s study?

Show answer


The majority of people shocked the other study subjects to the maximum level of 450v. Most regular people will obey authority even if it means going against their own conscience.

Show question


What’s it called when an indirectly measurable phenomenon is made measurable?

Show answer


Making an indirectly measurable phenomenon measurable is called operationalisation.

Show question


How did Milgram operationalise 

human obedience behaviour?

Show answer


He used a fake shock machine with a numerical scale to measure at which point the study participants would refuse to inflict pain on another participant.

Show question


What speaks for the reliability of Milgram’s study?

Show answer


It took place in the controlled environment of the lab, so there wasn’t interference from other variables, and the measurements were reproducible.

Show question


If the participants of Milgram’s obedience study knew they 

weren’t really harming the other person, how would this 

change the outcome of the study? 

Show answer


It would call into question if the results of the experiment would really hold true outside of the lab situation. Possibly, people might have more qualms about obeying an authority figure if they knew they were truly harming another person.

Show question


What’s it called when results obtained in a lab 

hold true in a natural setting as well?

Show answer


When psychological results obtained in a laboratory experiment are also true outside of the laboratory, this is called ecological validity. Ecological validity is part of external validity.

Show question


What is the problem with Milgram’s sample?

Show answer


Milgram’s sample was limited to men between 20-50 years of age from an American cultural background. The experiment needs to be repeated with other samples that include other cultures, genders, and age ranges for destructive obedience to be considered universal to humans.

Show question


Milgram’s obedience experiment has been replicated many times, the world over, with similar results. Which cross-cultural replication gave different results and what do these results mean?

Show answer


Students in Jordan were found to be significantly more likely to obey than people in other countries. This might mean that there are cultural differences in whether people obey authority figures.

Show question


Why would you not be able to repeat Milgram’s obedience study nowadays?

Show answer


You’d have to find a way to conduct the study without lying to or harming the participants as otherwise the study would not be approved by the research ethics committee.

Show question


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