Stanley Milgram

Stanley Milgram entered the world on August 15th, 1933, born in New York City to a family of Jewish immigrants. He would grow to be one of the most influential psychologists in history, carrying out cutting-edge yet controversial research that would expand our understanding of obedience to authority. 

Stanley Milgram Stanley Milgram

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Table of contents
    • Let's begin by outlining Stanley Milgram's obedience experiments.
    • Then we will discuss Stanley Milgram's experiment conclusion.
    • As we move along, we'll lay out the ethical issues in Stanley Milgram's experiments.
    • We will then define Stanley Milgram's theory.
    • To conclude, we will look at Stanley Milgram's contribution to psychology as a whole.

    Stanley Milgram’s Obedience Experiments

    Stanley Milgram started his academic career studying political science at Queens College in New York. He then went on to complete his graduate studies at Harvard University. While at Harvard, he had the opportunity to study with world-renowned social psychologists including Gordon Allport and Solomon Asch. Milgram was especially influenced by Asch's experiments on conformity and how group behavior can influence individual behavior.

    What really sparked his interest was the trial of Nazi war criminal, Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann, along with several other criminals facing trial for their inhumane treatment of Jews during the Holocaust, claimed that he was simply "following orders". After accepting a position at Yale University, Milgram was able to explore this question by conducting an experiment. Stanley Milgram's obedience experiments aimed to uncover why ordinary people, such as Eichmann, are willing to obey orders from authority, even when it means harming another.

    Obedience: when a person complies with the order, demand, or request of a person in authority because they fear some type of consequence.

    Stanley Milgram Obedience Experiment: Procedure

    Milgram recruited the participants for the study by creating a newspaper ad stating a need for adult male participants in a research experiment. All participants were from New Haven, Connecticut, and came from a range of economic backgrounds. Each participant was offered compensation for their time.

    Stanley Milgram, Nazis marching down street, StudySmarterNazi Germany, Commons.Wikimedia.org

    There were two groups in this experiment -- the teacher and the learner. Straws were picked to determine who would be the teacher and who would be the learner. However, unknown to the participants, Milgram ensured that his confederates were always chosen as learners.

    Confederates: the individuals in a research experiment that pretend to be participants, but actually, work for the researcher and are aware of the experiment.

    The learner was asked to remember several words or phrases. If they got the answer incorrect, the teacher is required to press a button that, or so they were told, would emit an electric shock. Each time, the shock would increase by 15 volts and up to 450 volts, enough to cause significant harm and even death to a person. Of course, since the learners were Milgram's confederates, they would purposefully give the wrong answer but would not actually receive the electric shock. However, the teachers (participants) did not know this.

    If the teacher showed hesitation or stated that they no longer wanted to continue, the researcher would give a series of orders or prods (Milgram, 1965).

    Prod 1 - Please continue.

    Prod 2 - The experiment requires you to continue.

    Prod 3 - It is absolutely essential that you continue.

    Prod 4 - You have no other choice but to continue.

    Would these orders from "authority" influence the participant's likelihood to obey? Continue reading for the shocking results...

    Stanley Milgram Experiment Conclusion

    Two-thirds, that's 65% of the participants, gave a shock all the way up to 450 volts, and all of them went up to 300 volts. The learners (remember, they were never actually given a shock) would pretend to be in pain, pleading for them to stop, and sometimes even complain of severe chest pain. Only 35% of the participants chose to go against the researcher's orders and refuse to continue.

    Obedience to authority clearly played a role in this experiment. However, several other factors affected the likelihood that the participant would obey and choose to cause harm to another. To uncover this, Milgram conducted several different versions of this experiment.

    Stanley Milgram, red electric chair, StudySmarterElectric chair, Commons.Wikimedia.org

    Here are a few examples of these studies and how they affected how many participants delivered the highest shock (Spielman et al., 2020).

    • Rather than being in two rooms on Yale University's campus, the experiment was moved to an office building off-campus. The percentage of participants who gave the highest shock decreased to 48%.

    • The learner and the teacher are placed in the same room, rather than two separate rooms in the original experiment. The percentage of participants who gave the highest shock decreased to 30%.
    • Participants were able to have an assistant (another confederate) administer the shock. The percentage of participants who gave the highest shock increased to 92.5%
    • When the researchers gave their orders over the phone rather than in person, the percentage of participants who gave the highest shock decreased to 23%.

    Based on these findings, we can make several conclusions about what factors affect a person's likelihood to obey an authority figure, even if it goes against their beliefs. For example, it would appear that being physically closer to an authority figure may affect whether or not a person obeys orders. It's a lot easier to say no over the phone than in person. Or being physically closer to the person you may harm may make it more difficult to carry out orders.

    Stanley Milgram's Theory

    To explain these findings, Stanley Milgram's theory, also known as Milgram's Agency Theory, was formed. This theory presents two possible states a person may be in in a social situation involving authority. Those two states are the autonomous state and the agentic state.

    Autonomous state: the state in which you feel in charge of your own actions and will take responsibility for any consequences of those actions.

    Agentic state: the state in which you allow someone else to give you orders and expect them to take responsibility for any consequences for your actions in response to those orders.

    According to Milgram, the agentic state is the state a person must be in for them to obey authority, even when it means harming someone else or going against one's beliefs. Milgram's Agency Theory states that we must believe two things about the person in authority:

    1. They are qualified to order others around.

    2. They will take responsibility for whatever happens.

    Nazis might have committed terrible acts because they believed in Hitler's mission and that he was a qualified leader and they believed that he would be the one to take responsibility for the orders he gave.

    Stanley Milgram Experiment's Ethical Issues

    This was a monumental experiment in the field of social psychology. However, this Stanley Milgram experiment's ethical issues should not be ignored. One of the biggest issues in this experiment was the element of deception. The participants did not know that the electric shock was fake. Many of them were extremely distressed -- stuttering, sweating, crying, and some even had seizures due to the stress. Milgram debriefed the participants after the experiment by explaining that no one was actually harmed. This did help to reduce the participant's distress, however, some question if putting them through that experience at all is acceptable.

    Another ethical issue with Stanley Milgram's obedience experiment is that it was never clearly communicated to the participants that they had the right to withdraw. Many felt that since they took money for participating, they couldn't back out. They could always choose not to participate (35% did), but the researchers never presented that as an option. Some question if this skewed the results but Milgram felt that it would interfere with creating a sense of authority between the researcher and the participants.

    Stanley Milgram's Contribution to Psychology

    Milgram's experiments on obedience provided strong evidence that under certain situations, any one of us could abandon our beliefs and morals to follow orders from a person we deem as having authority over us. If we feel we can place the responsibility on someone else, we may be capable of things we never imagined.

    It is important to note, however, that while Stanley Milgram's obedience experiments had shocking results, some researchers took issue with how the participants were selected. In a way, the participants chose themselves to participate (rather than through random sampling) because they responded to a newspaper ad. This drew people who were willing to volunteer and, most notably, it only drew adult men. The ad did not advertise for women or children. Are the results the same for them too?

    Stanley Milgram, man lowering glasses pointing forward, StudySmarterPerson in authority, Freepik.com

    Luckily, news of Milgram's experiments through his written work, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (1974) had a major influence on several other researchers who expanded Milgram's findings to include more than adult males from New Haven. Research on obedience is applicable in other fields of psychology as well such as forensic psychology.

    Forensic psychology: professional field of psychology that focuses on applying psychological principles to criminal behavior and legal proceedings.

    Should people be punished the same for crimes that are committed because they feel they have to follow orders from a person in authority? Forensic psychologists explore these questions and are often asked to provide their professional opinion in court.

    His experiments on obedience were only part of Stanley Milgram's contribution to psychology. He eventually left Yale to join Harvard's faculty but after not achieving tenure, he accepted a position at the City University of New York (CUNY). At CUNY, he conducted other experiments on social relations.

    Stanley Milgram - Key takeaways

    • Stanley Milgram's obedience experiments aimed to uncover why ordinary people, such as Adolf Eichmann, are willing to obey authority, even when it means harming another.
    • Two-thirds, that's 65% of the participants, gave a shock all the way up to 450 volts, and all of them went up to 300 volts. Only 35% of the participants chose to go against the researcher's orders and refuse to continue.
    • According to Milgram, the agentic state is the state a person must be in for them to obey authority, even when it means harming someone else or going against one's beliefs. Milgram's Agency Theory states that we must believe two things about the person in authority: they are qualified to order others around and they will take responsibility for whatever happens.
    • One of the biggest issues in this experiment was the element of deception. The participants did not know that the electric shock was fake. Many of them were extremely distressed -- stuttering, sweating, crying, and some even had seizures due to the stress
    • Milgram's experiments on obedience provided strong evidence that under certain situations, any one of us could abandon our beliefs and morals to follow orders from a person we deem as having authority over us.

    References

    1. Spielman, R. M., Jenkins, W. J., & Lovett, M. (2020). Psychology. OpenStax, Rice University.
    2. McLeod, S. A. (2007). The Milgram experiment. Simply Psychology.
    3. Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371–378.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Stanley Milgram

    What is Stanley Milgram best known for?

    Stanley Milgram is best known for his experiments on obedience to authority. 

    What did Stanley Milgram believe?

    In his Agency Theory, Stanley Milgram believed that we must believe two things about the person in authority in order to take orders from them. 

    1. They are qualified to order others around. 

    2. They will take responsibility for whatever happens. 


    Under these conditions, Milgram believed that we are capable of taking orders from someone in authority, even if it may cause harm to others or go against our beliefs. 

    What was the purpose of the Milgram  experiment?

    The purpose of the Milgram experiment was to uncover why ordinary people, such as former Nazi Adolf Eichmann, are willing to obey authority, even when it means harming another. 

    What did Stanley Milgram discover?

    In his shock experiments, Stanley Milgram discovered that  many people (65% in his experiment) are willing to cause harm to another if given orders by authority. He conducted several other similar experiments changing certain aspects of the situation. He discovered that certain conditions can impact the likelihood of someone obey orders from authority that go against their beliefs. For example, if the person the researcher was not in the room, the number of participants willing to deliver the highest electric shock decreased. 

    Why was the Milgram experiment unethical?

    The Milgram experiment was unethical for several reasons. One, it was not made clear to the participants that they had the option of ending the experiment early. Second,  many of the participants experienced significant distress due to what they were being asked to do. Some say it was unethical to put them through this experience. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What event helped motivate Stanley Milgram to study obedience to authority?

    What were the results of Stanley Milgram's experiment? 

    When Milgram moved his experiment to an off-campus building the percentage of participants who gave the highest shock ________________.  

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