Friday, July 8, 2011

Friday Fun: A Look Back At The Milgram Experiment

In 1963, Stanley Milgram published perhaps the single most important piece of research in the history of social psychology. His Behavioral Study of Obedience experiment is among the most influential studies of all time, and is still being taught today in psychology classes everywhere. 

The experiment was designed to take place in laboratory room where the goal was to study learning and memory as part of a Yale psychology experiment. There were 40 total participants between the ages of 20 and 50 from the surrounding New Haven community. All different types of occupational grades and education levels were represented among these participants, though they were all men. Once at the experiment, participants were instructed that they would be teaching another man--their partner-- some word associations. If the partner got any of the answers wrong, participants would deliver a slight shock. As the partner continued to get answers wrong, the shock could potentially increase to painful levels. The final shock intensity was 450 volts, and was labeled with an XXX.

In reality of course, the partner in the experiment was a confederate, and was scripted to provide wrong answers throughout the learning process--thereby inducing stronger shocks from the participant. This is where the obedience part enters in. At some point, every participant does not wish to continue shocking their partner, and at these time points, the experimenter--wearing a white lab coat-- instructs the participant that "the experiment requires that you continue." After several of these such prods 26 of the 40 original participants shocked their partner all the way to the maximum 450 volts.


Why is this research amazing? It's amazing because it is unexpected. In the paper itself, Milgram writes that he asked a sample of regular people and experts about the procedures in the experiment and exactly how many people they'd guess would shock the partner all the way to the 450 volt mark. All participants answered between 0 and 3% of participants (most experts said 3%, consistent with the number of estimated sociopaths). The actual results were much more shocking (pun intended). The other reason I love this research is because it gives us a reason why people do mean things to others. It's not simply because they are mean, rather, it is because of the powerful social situations that change how we think and act toward others. Obedience turned the regular people of New Haven into evil people.

Why is this research still so relevant? Milgram's inspiration for his experiment came from Nazi German concentration camps. Milgram was struck by a book about Nazi German officers which talked about the important role of obedience in some of the horrific acts during that time. In the book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William Shirer writes, "in the name of obedience they were party to, and assisted in, the most wicked large scale actions in the history of the world." It was this observation that led to Milgram's experiment. It is also this point that really rings true today. We can think of more recent examples, like those of the Abu Ghraib prison camps wherein many of the officers who committed these human rights violations did so because they claimed to be obeying orders.

Was it ethical? First of all, it is important to note that people have been replicating Milgram's results for the past 40-50 years, so most universities consider the work to be worthwhile, ethical, and important. But not everyone thinks this way. For example, over at the hardest science our colleague writes that CITI, the national training program for helping people to learn research ethics has an entire section on the Milgram experiment. In this section, CITI compares Milgram's experiment to such horrors as "Nazi medical experiments and the Tuskegee syphilis study."CITI it seems, may have some reservations about the original experiments (although see this post on the hardest science). I actually think that, with today's standards Milgram's actual study would have been canceled. In the paper, Milgram writes about serious adverse events, emphasis mine:

"Many subjects showed signs of nervousness in the experimental situation, and especially upon administering the more powerful shocks. In a large number of cases the degree of tension reached extremes that are rarely seen in sociopsychological laboratory studies. Subjects were observed to sweat, tremble, stutter, bite their lips, groan, and dig their fingernails into their flesh. These were characteristic rather than exceptional responses to the experiment." -- Stanley Milgram (1963)


Milgram's experiments yielded amazing results, yet I'm not sure I'd have the stones to continue some of my experiments through to their conclusion if they were making someone dig their fingernails into their flesh. I wonder if Milgram could have halted some of these experiments a little early, and relieved the tension felt by these extremely agitated participants. That may have been a more ethical response, but one that may have diminished the impact of these studies on the field of psychology.

What are your thoughts about the Milgram Study? Share them with me in the comments!

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral Study of obedience. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67 (4), 371-378 DOI: 10.1037/h0040525


  1. Thanks for this interesting post. NPR had a story about Stanford Prison Experiment that has some parallels with the Milgram experiment - 'Evil Scientist' Wants To Teach People To Do Good.

  2. Thanks for the comment Sarkis, and for the link. Phil Zimbardo, who ran the prison experiments is a giant in social psychology. I should also point out, that he cancelled the experiment after a week because he thought that the prison guards--who were role-playing-- became too cruel. Potentially a lesson learned from the Milgram work.

  3. Michael,

    IIRC, Zimbardo has said he realized how bad things were going only after his girlfriend stopped by to observe. It was her criticism that woke him up and caused him to stop the experiment.

    That makes me think that something more is underlying these responses. Perhaps something to do with the apparent authority of the process itself.

    The Milgram participants were told "the experiment requires that you continue." They were being told that an authority greater than the experimenter himself was making demands. Perhaps the process or situation leads to obedience, even when that obedience is reluctant or horrifying.


  4. Yes Ande, and his then girlfriend (now wife) is now a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley (christina maslach). You're exactly right, as Kurt Lewin would agree, the situation is truly powerful.

  5. I believe that it was not ethical to subject these people to such an experiment, allowing them to believe that they were hurting someone else. Of course, they could have (and should have) refused (some did), but for those who were afraid, they have to live the rest of their lives with the guilt that although nobody was actually hurt, they still pushed the buttons and twisted the knobs. Keep in mind, this experiment is often cited as an explanation for how the horrors of the nazis could have been carried out by so many German soldiers. The people who did not refuse to administer the shocks went on through life, probably feeling not to good about themselves. Hopefully it woke them up to the fact that they should not automatically obey perceived authority, and hopefully they are thankful that they learned this lesson without actually hurting anyone, but they still have to look themselves in the mirror every morning and remember that they did it (it was real in their minds at the time). When I think of all this, I realize it was not ethical at all.

    However, I will not debate for one second the value of such an experiment. Obviously, this experiment is one of a handful that have had a huge, valuable impact on our understanding of human thought and behavior.

  6. Thanks for your comments Daniel. This study--the most famous of psychology experiments--simultaneously demonstrates the importance of psychological research, AND the importance of ethical treatment of subjects.

    Thanks again for reading!

  7. Did anyone ever study the characteristics of the refusers? Anyone ever try to come up with a questionnaire that might predict who would quit the experiment? Maybe they were highly empathetic, or resistant to authority, or had strict moral codes, anything like that?

  8. Michael,

    You're welcome. Thanks for the post and discussion.


    I’m not sure if this is what you’re looking for, but Lefkowitz’ essay, “On a Moral Right to Civil Disobedience” has some interesting thoughts on the conflict between adherence to rightly established civil laws and the legitimacy of civil disobedience.

    Lefkowitz, D. (2007). On a Moral Right to Civil Disobedience. In , Ethics (pp. 202-233). University of Chicago Press. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

    And, from the abstract of Burger’s “Replicating Milgram: Would people still obey today?”:
    The author conducted a partial replication of Stanley Milgram's (1963, 1965, 1974) obedience studies that allowed for useful comparisons with the original investigations while protecting the well-being of participants. Seventy adults participated in a replication of Milgram's Experiment 5 up to the point at which they first heard the learner's verbal protest (150 volts). Because 79% of Milgram's participants who went past this point continued to the end of the shock generator's range, reasonable estimates could be made about what the present participants would have done if allowed to continue. Obedience rates in the 2006 replication were only slightly lower than those Milgram found 45 years earlier. Contrary to expectation, participants who saw a confederate refuse the experimenter's instructions obeyed as often as those who saw no model. Men and women did not differ in their rates of obedience, but there was some evidence that individual differences in empathic concern and desire for control affected participants' responses.

    Burger, J. M. (2009). Replicating Milgram: Would people still obey today?. American Psychologist, 64(1), 1-11. doi:10.1037/a0010932

  9. Right on Daniel! I was looking for the Burger (2009) paper earlier today! Sfbarnes, I hope that article helps.

    Thanks for reading!