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Milgram’s Variation Studies

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Milgram’s Variation Studies

Have you ever wondered how, historically, ordinary people have been able to commit dreadful acts? This is what Milgram wondered when he created his famous shock experiment.

Milgram wanted to understand how the Nazi regime’s followers were willing and able to commit heinous acts, despite previously being ordinary people. While many took the essentialist view of the German people somehow being predisposed to fascism, Milgram was not satisfied with this explanation. He devised an experiment that would put participants in a situation where an authority figure’s orders would be at odds with their conscience to see how they would act.

Milgram's Variation Studies Authority Figures StudySmarterAuthority figure ordering someone to move, Flaticon

Milgram experiment summary

Milgram recruited his participants from a newspaper listing, where he described his experiment as a ‘study of memory’. Milgram gave his participants the role of ‘teacher’ or ‘learner’.

Milgram's Variation Studies Advertisement Milgram Experiment StudySmarterPublic advertisement of Milgram’s experiment, Wikimedia Commons

Milgram's Variation Studies Public advertisement of Milgram’s experiment StudySmarter

Public advertisement of the Milgram obedience experiment, Wikimedia Commons

Unbeknownst to the participants, they would always be selected for the teacher role, and the learners were always confederates (participants who were secretly part of the investigation team). The learners were taken into another room outside of the view of the participants.

Participants would then say a word to the learner, who then had to pick the most suitable pairing for it from a list of four possible answers.

If the learner chose the incorrect pair word, the researcher would then instruct the participant to deliver electric shocks to the learner, with each getting stronger and more dangerous (starting from 15 Volts labelled ‘slight shock’, to 450 Volts labelled ‘XXX’).

The machine used to deliver the shocks had signs denoting the danger the shocks posed to the learner, and the learner would react audibly.

However, in reality, there was no electric shock, and the learner (confederate) was acting. The learner (confederate) was instructed to deliberately give wrong answers to investigate how the participant would respond to delivering increasingly ‘dangerous’ shocks.

Milgram's Variation Studies Milgram's Experiment diagram StudySmarterA diagram of Milgram’s experiment, Wikimedia Commons

If participants expressed doubts or refused to deliver the shocks, the researcher would give them ‘prods’ (verbal encouragement), which would become more and more imperative, from ‘please continue’ to ‘you have no other choice but to continue.’ The participant could choose to end the experiment and leave at any point, but most decided to obey.

In the original Milgram obedience experiment, every participant obeyed until at least 300 volts, with 65% obeying until the highest shock strength.

Milgram experiment results

The Milgram experiment results suggested that people are likely to do things that they would ordinarily find morally heinous if an authority figure instructs them to do so. People are socially conditioned to obey people they believe to be righteous and knowledgeable. However, it may not have been the authority figure alone that caused the participants to obey, so Milgram carried out several variations, where he would investigate the relationship between several other variables and how they affected obedience.

Milgram obedience experiment variation: location


In one variation, Milgram aimed to investigate the effects of the location on obedience. The original Milgram obedience experiment took place at Yale University, a prestigious academic location. Milgram decided to have this variation in a much less well-kept, run-down office suite away from the university.

The procedure of this variation was the same as before. The participants took on the role of teacher, instructing and delivering shocks to the learner confederates with increasing voltage. The researcher still observed and prompted them, with the only other difference being that the researcher was not wearing a lab coat this time.

Results

The results of this variation were different from those of the original shock experiment. Participant obedience decreased to just 47.5%, which was significantly lower than the original shock experiment. Milgram concluded that the change of location from a prestigious university to an unimpressive office complex made the experiment and the researcher’s authority seem less legitimate.

Milgram obedience experiment variation: proximity

Milgram studied the effects of proximity in various ways, experimenting with proximity between the teacher and the learner and the teacher and researcher.

Proximity to learner

In another variation, Milgram aimed to investigate how the participant’s proximity to the learner might affect the participant’s actions’ moral weight and obedience.

The procedure of this variation was also identical to the original shock experiment, with the participant taking on the role of teacher and delivering shocks to the learner. This time, the learner was in the same room as the participant, unlike in the original experiment, where the learner was out of the participant’s sight.

Results

The results of this variation were also different to the original shock experiment. Participant obedience decreased to 40%. This is most likely because the participant could see the shock’s supposed effect on the learner confederate more clearly and intimately.

Removing the buffer

In this variation, Milgram aimed to investigate not just how closer proximity of the participant to the learner would affect obedience, but also the removal of the ‘buffer’ by having the participant force the learner’s hand onto the shock plate to receive the shock when they refused to do so themselves.

Buffer is something that exists between the agency of the participant and the learner.

The procedure of this variation was again identical to the original shock experiment. Instead of the learner placing their hand on the shock plate to be shocked each time, they would refuse to do so at a certain point, and the researcher would instruct the participant to force the learner confederate’s hand onto the plate.

Results

The results of this variation saw yet another drop in obedience to just 30%, supporting the idea that the closer the participant is to the learner and the more the consequences of their actions are felt, the less willing they are to obey.

Proximity to authority

In the proximity to authority variation, Milgram tested how proximity to the authority figure (the researcher) in the experiment would also affect obedience.

In this variation, the procedure differed in that the researcher would instruct the participant from another room via telephone instead of being in the same room as them.

Results

This variation found that obedience fell to a mere 23% once again. Additionally, it was found that participants would deliver fewer shocks than they were ordered to, and when shocks were delivered they were often on the less powerful setting.

In conclusion, these results reflected that when participants felt more responsible for their actions, they were less likely to commit cruel acts.

Milgram obedience experiment variation: allies in the ‘teacher’ role

In this variation, two people in the teacher role acted as allies to the actual participant. One was a participant, but the others were confederates.

This variation differed from the standard shock experiment because not only were there multiple teachers this time, but the participant teacher could instruct the confederate teacher to deliver shocks as needed.

Results

This variation found that obedience rose dramatically, with 95% of participants delivering shocks up to the highest level. This was concluded to be due to the participant feeling a diminished sense of responsibility. Not only were they not the only ones delivering the shocks now, but they didn’t have to deliver the shocks themselves.

If allies disobeyed, the participant would also be less likely to obey, so it goes both ways.

Milgram’s study and its variations: evaluation

Considering the variations in his study, Milgram established various strengths and weaknesses to his methods.

Strengths

  • As Milgram’s variations were all lab experiments, Milgram had control over all variables, making the results reliable.

  • Because Milgram changed just one variable at a time, the influence of the variables was apparent.

  • Several other studies, such as Bickman (1974), supported Milgram’s findings. They investigated if the presence of a uniform would influence obedience (researchers were dressed as one of the following three options: a civilian in a coat and tie, a milkman, or a guard, and they approached people on the street and asked them to perform a task). They found people obeyed more if the guard approached them.

Weaknesses

  • Was the Milgram experiment unethical? It could be described as unethical, as the participants were not told the true nature of the experiment, and it was disturbing, as long-lasting psychological effects were possible (participants may feel guilty long after the experiment is over).

  • Some participants figured out that the study was a fake scenario, which made the Milgram experiment results less valid due to demand characteristics.

  • The scenario presented in the study is unlikely to ever occur in day-to-day life, so the study lacks ecological validity.


Milgram’s Variation Studies - Key takeaways

  • Milgram based his variation studies on his shock experiment.
  • Milgram aimed to discover why even ordinary people can be convinced to do morally unjustifiable things.
  • Milgram discovered that the presence of an authority figure would diminish participants’ feelings of responsibility, causing them to deliver shocks they believed were painful and harmful.
  • Milgram tried several variations. These included: Proximity to the learner, removal of buffer, location, proximity to an authority figure and the presence of allies.
  • Milgram found that when participants were closer to the learner confederate, further from the authority figure or had to force the learner’s hand, they were less likely to obey. This was also the case if the experiment took place in run-down offices. However, with another teacher (allies), participants much likely obeyed or disobeyed depending on the allies’ response (due to the removal of responsibility or the allyship in disobedience).
  • These results support the idea that the legitimacy of the authority and the responsibility the participants felt were both critical factors that determined people’s ability to do morally unjustifiable things.

Frequently Asked Questions about Milgram’s Variation Studies

Milgram’s experiment tells us people are willing to do morally wrong things that they otherwise wouldn’t do if an authority figure orders them to do so. 

Milgram used self-volunteered sampling.

Milgram collected qualitative and quantitative data.

Milgram’s study was unethical, as participants did not know the nature of the experiment and believed they were harming others. It lacked ecological validity.

It identified potential issues with authority figures and the ramifications of unchecked obedience.

Final Milgram’s Variation Studies Quiz

Question

Why did Milgram create his experiment?

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Answer

Milgram wanted to understand why ordinary people would commit cruel acts.

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Question

How did Milgram select his participants?

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Answer

Milgram advertised the study in a local paper.

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Question

What role did the participants play?

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Answer

Participants played the role of ‘teacher’ in the experiments.

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Question

What is a confederate?

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Answer

A confederate is a participant who is secretly part of the research team.

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Question

Which roles did confederates play?

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Answer

Confederates played the roles of the researcher/scientist and the ‘learner’.

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Question

What was the role of the teacher?

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Answer

The teacher was instructed to ask the learner to match lists of words together and deliver electric shocks if they made a mistake.

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Question

What is a prod?

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Answer

In Milgram’s experiment, prods were verbal encouragement given to the participant if they were hesitant to deliver shocks.

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Question

How many prods were participants given?

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Answer

Participants were given four prods.

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Question

How did Milgram investigate the effects of location on obedience?

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Answer

Milgram tested the effects of location on obedience by setting the experiment in run-down offices in one variation.

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Question

What did Milgram’s location variation find?

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Answer

Milgram found that obedience fell to 47.5% in the location variation.

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Question

How did Milgram investigate how proximity to the learner affected obedience?

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Answer

In one variation, Milgram had the experiment with the participant and learner confederate in the same room.

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Question

What did Milgram find changed when the proximity to the learner changed?

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Answer

Milgram found that obedience fell to just 40% when the participant and learner were in the same room.

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Question

What changed when Milgram had the participant manually force the learner’s hand onto the shock plate?

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Answer

When Milgram made the participant force the learner’s hand onto the shock plate obedience fell to 30%.

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Question

What happened to obedience when Milgram had the researcher confederate give instructions over the phone?

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Answer

When Milgram had the researcher give instructions over the phone, obedience fell to 20.5%.

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Question

How did obedience change when there was a second teacher confederate?

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Answer

Obedience increased.

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