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. 

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Table of contents
    • What was Milgram's reason for creating his obedience study?
    • What were the results of the experiment?
    • What was variation 13?
    • Was Milgram's experiment unethical?

    Milgram Experiment Summary

    While many took the essentialist view of the German people somehow being predisposed to fascism, Stanley 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 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. StudySmarterFig. 1. Public advertisement of Milgram’s experiment. Wikimedia Commons.

    Unbeknownst to the participants, they would always be selected for the teacher role, and the learner role was always a confederate (a participant who was secretly part of the investigation team). The confederates were told how to act before the experiment so their behavior remained constant across all trials. The teachers, the true participants, were kept in one room with a researcher and the learners were taken into another room outside of the view of the participants.

    Participants were told to 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 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 that delivered the shocks had signs denoting the shock’s danger, and the learner would react audibly.

    However, in reality, there was no electric shock, and the learner (confederate) was acting. The learner was instructed to deliberately give wrong answers to investigate how the participant would respond to delivering increasingly ‘dangerous’ shocks. Would they go all the way to 450 volts?

    Milgram's Variation Studies Milgram's Experiment diagram StudySmarterFig. 2. Diagram of Milgram’s experiment. Wikimedia Commons.

    If participants expressed doubts or refused to deliver the shocks, the researcher would give them verbal prods to encourage them to keep going. These prods would become more and more imperative, from ‘please continue’ to ‘you have no other choice but to continue.’ The participant could end the experiment and leave at any point; however, 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, which would have resulted in the learner’s death.

    Milgram Experiment Results

    When reading about the setup of this experiment, would you think that 65% of participants would dish out the highest level of voltage to a person who answered a question wrong? Neither did Milgram. Milgram was surprised at how many people continued the experiment when no one forced them.

    The Milgram experiment results suggested that people are likely to do things they ordinarily find morally heinous if an authority figure instructs them. In this case, the authority figure was the researcher sitting in the room with the participant. Even though the researcher never told the participant they had to continue, their verbal encouragement was sufficient. As people, we are socially conditioned to obey people we believe to be righteous and knowledgeable.

    These results suggest that the Nazis were not all downright evil but rather following the instructions that they were told (from an authority figure).

    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

    Milgram’s variations of his obedience experiment were aimed at other factors that could influence obedience. To ensure that he was only testing that one variable, Milgram had to run many different variations of his study. While we often hear about his initial test, as explained above, the other experiments within the obedience study continue to provide more information about why people obey. Below are a couple of examples of the variations.


    In one variation, Milgram aimed to investigate the effects of location on obedience. The original Milgram obedience experiment occurred 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, with the only other difference (besides location) being that the researcher was not wearing a lab coat this time.

    This variation’s results differed from those of the original shock experiment. Participant obedience decreased to just 47.5%, 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 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. 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.

    The results of this variation were also different from 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.

    Proximity to Authority

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

    This variation found that obedience fell to a mere 23%. 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 Variation 13 Evaluation

    Milgram's 13th variation investigates the power of the authority figure. In this variation, the main experimenter who was sitting in the room with the participant got called away for a phone call during the experiment. When he was gone, another participant (actually a confederate) took his role as the experimenter. This "participant" was not initially introduced to the actual participant as the experimenter, nor was he wearing a lab coat.

    Results show that obedience levels dropped to 20% when the participants thought another participant was conducting the experiment rather than one of the researchers. This variation had one of the most significant differences in obedience levels than the initial experiment, showing just how impactful the experimenter’s presence is on the participant. However, some participants still obeyed the confederate, showing that other factors such as the setting and proximity still influenced the participants.

    Milgram Experiment: Unethical?

    While Milgram's experiment was a revolutionary study on obedience, the question arises: was it unethical?

    To this question, most people would answer that it was. Many studies are intentionally designed to not inform the participants of the true nature of the experiment, with this being no exception. Even though the participants were informed of what the experiment was investigating after the study's conclusion, there still could be long-lasting impacts. Since most participants administered the highest level of shock, they had to grapple with the decisions they made, despite knowing that it was fake. These participants could be left with guilt even after they had left the lab.

    When experimenting, researchers are supposed to protect their participants from harm. Despite Milgram’s participants not experiencing physical harm, their mental state did not come out unscathed. After the experiment concluded, Milgram debriefed the participants on what the study was examining, which he most likely perceived to be sufficient. However, would you be okay if you were in one of the participant’s shoes and just found out that you delivered enough shocks to kill someone? Even though you were told it was just an experiment and no one was harmed, you nevertheless just found out a scary piece of information about yourself.

    Milgram’s Variation Studies - Key takeaways

    • 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, including changing the authority figure for another "participant" (actually a confederate) and found that obedience levels dropped
    • 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
    • This experiment is unethical due to the mental harm of the participants and would not be conducted today


    1. Fig. 2 Milgram's Experiment, Expiring Frog,, CC-BY-SA-3.0-migrated
    Frequently Asked Questions about Milgram’s Variation Studies

    What does the Milgram experiment tell us?

    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. 

    What sampling method did Milgram use?

    Milgram used a self-volunteered sampling method.

    What data did Milgram collect?

    Milgram collected qualitative and quantitative data.

    What is the major problem with the Milgram study?

    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.

    How is the Milgram study relevant today?

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

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

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

    What percentage of participants obeyed the orders to administer the highest shock strength?

    People are more likely to obey authorities in a medical facility or an educational institution rather than a run-down office.


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