Obedience to Authority The experiments by Stanley Milgram
Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University, conducted a
study focusing on the conflict between obedience to authority and personal
conscience. He examined justifications for acts of genocide offered by those
accused at the World War II, Nuremberg War Crimes trials. Their defence often
was based on "obedience" - - that they were just obeying orders whilst under the
authority of their superiors.
The experiment began in July 1961, a year after the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem.
Milgram devised the
experiment to answer the question "Could it be that Eichmann, and his million
accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all
The results of the study were made known in Milgram's
Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (1974).
So-called "teachers" (who were
actually the unknowing subjects of the experiment) were recruited by Milgram in response to a newspaper ad
offering $4.00 for one hour's work.
In his Study of Obedience Milgram selected 40 male volunteers who had responded to this advert for persons willing to
participate in a Study of Memory.
The 40 who were chosen were selected to vary in age, educational attainment, and occupation to give an overall
sample that was somewhat representative of the general population.
Individual subjects thus recruited turned up to take part in a
investigating memory and learning at Linsly-Chittenden Hall on Yale University's
old campus. He introduced to a stern looking experimenter in a white coat
and to a rather pleasant and friendly co-subject who was also presumably recruited via
the same newspaper ad. The experimenter explained that one subject would be assigned the
role of "teacher" and the other would be assigned the role of "learner."
Two slips of paper marked
"teacher" were handed to the subject and to the co-subject. The co-subject was actually an actor who,
in posing as a subject to the experiment, subsequently claimed that his slip said "learner" such that
the unknowing subject was inevitably led to believe that his role as "teacher" had been chosen randomly.
learner and teacher were
then given a sample 45-volt electric shock from an apparatus attached to a chair into which the "actor-learner"
was to be strapped. The fictitious story
given to the "teachers" was that the experiment was intended to explore the effects of
punishment for incorrect responses on learning behavior.
A succession of unknowing subjects in their roles as teacher were given simple memory tasks in the form of
reading lists of two word pairs and asking the "learner" to read them back and were
instructed to administer a shock by pressing a button each time the learner made a mistake.
It was understood that the electric shocks were to be of increased by 15 volts
in intensity for each mistake the "learner" made during the experiment.
The shock generator that the "teacher" was told to operate had 30 switches in 15 volt increments, each switch
was labeled with a voltage ranging from
15 up to 450 volts. Each switch also had a rating, ranging from "slight shock" to "danger: severe
shock". The final two switches being labelled "XXX".
The text to the top left of Milgram's Shock Box reads:-
SHOCK GENERATOR, TYPE ZLB.
DYSON INSTRUMENT COMPANY,
OUTPUT 15 VOLTS -- 450 VOLTS.
Milgram Obedience Experiment
Shock Range Labelling
Electric Shocks simulated
15, 30, 45, 60 volts
75, 90. 105, 120 volts
135, 150, 165, 180 volts
Very Strong Shock
195, 210, 225, 240 volts
Note the change from black to red text as the console display moves from :-
Very Strong Shock to Intense Shock
255, 270, 285, 300 volts
Extreme Intensity Shock
315, 330, 345, 360 volts
Danger: Severe Shock
375, 390, 405, 420 volts
and finally - XXX
435, 450 volts
The experiment was conducted in a scenario where the
was in another room but
the "teacher" was made aware of the "actor-learner's" discomfort by poundings on the wall.
No further shocks were actually delivered - the "teacher" was not aware that the "learner" in the
study was actually an actor who was intended, by
the requirements of the experiment, to use his talents to indicate increasing levels of discomfort as
the "teacher" administered increasingly severe electric shocks in response to the mistakes made
by the "learner".
The experimenter was present in the same room as the "teacher" and whenever "teachers" asked
whether increased shocks should
be given he or she was verbally encouraged by the experimenter to continue.
These encouragements were, in fact, pre-scripted by the research team and followed this pattern:-
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.
These Prods were to be deployed successively by the researchers - a higher number Prod
could only be used if a lower number one had proved unsuccessful. Each experimental session was terminated
whenever Prod 4 failed to induce the "teacher" to continue administering electric shocks.
In this scenario 65% of
the "teachers" obeyed orders to punish the learner to the very end of the
450-volt scale! No subject stopped before reaching 300 volts!
At times, the worried "teachers" questioned the
experimenter, asking who was responsible for any harmful effects resulting from
shocking the learner at such a high level. Upon receiving the answer that the
experimenter assumed full responsibility, teachers seemed to accept the response
and continue shocking, even though some were obviously extremely uncomfortable
in doing so.
In an article entitled
"The Perils of Obedience" (1974) Stanley Milgram wrote:-
"Before the experiments, I sought predictions about the outcome from various kinds of people -- psychiatrists,
college sophomores, middle-class adults, graduate students and faculty in the behavioral sciences. With
remarkable similarity, they predicted that virtually all the subjects would refuse to obey the experimenter.
The psychiatrist, specifically, predicted that most subjects would not go beyond 150 volts, when the victim
makes his first explicit demand to be freed. They expected that only 4 percent would reach 300 volts, and that
only a pathological fringe of about one in a thousand would administer the highest shock on the board".
The Obedience to Authority experiment was continued by Milgram over a number of other scenarios such as
where the "learner" could indicate discomfort by way of voice feedback - at "150 volts", the "actor-learner"
requested that the experiment end, and was consistently
told by the experimenter that - "The experiment requires that you continue. Please go on." or similar words.
scenarion the percentage of subjects who were prepared to administer the maximum 450 volts dropped slightly
Where the experiment was conducted in a nondescript office building rather than within the
walls of a prestigiously ornate hall on Yale's old campus the percentage of subjects
who were prepared to administer
the maximum voltage dropped to 47.5%.
Where the "teacher" had to
place the "learner's" hand on a "shock plate" in order to give him shocks above 150 volts
the percentage of subjects who were prepared to administer
the maximum voltage dropped to 30.0% and where the "experimenter" was at end of a phone line rather
than being in the same room the percentage of subjects who were prepared to administer
450 volts dropped to 20.5% and where the "teacher" could himself nominate the shock level
the percentage of subjects who were prepared to continue to the end of the scale dropped to 2.5%
Milgram summed up his findings in relation to the main experiment in "The Perils of Obedience"
"The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous import,
but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations.
I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an
ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered
to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the
subjects' strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the
subjects' ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more
often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths
on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and
the fact most urgently demanding explanation."
The experiment has been repeated by other psychologists around the world with similar
results. Variations have been performed to test for variables in the experimental setup.
For example, subjects are much more likely to be obedient when the experimenter is physically
present than when the instructions are given over telephone.
The Milgram Obedience Experiments scenario was given a high-profile repetition on
a French documentary about the effects of reality TV as first aired on a french state TV channel in
It is widely known that Plato, pupil of and close friend to Socrates, accepted that Human
Beings have a " Tripartite Soul " where individual Human Psychology is composed of three aspects -
Wisdom-Rationality, Spirited-Will and Appetite-Desire.
What is less widely appreciated is that such major World Faiths as Christianity, Islam,
Hinduism and Buddhism see "Spirituality" as being relative to "Desire" and to "Wrath".