Obedience to authority, Milgram’s experiment
Why do so many people obey when they feel coerced?. Social psychologist Stanley Milgram investigated the effect of obedience to authority
One of the most famous obedience studies in psychology was carried out by Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University. He conducted an experiment that focused on the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience.
Milgram (1963) examined the justifications for acts of genocide offered by defendants in the Nuremberg war criminal trials in World War II. Their defense was often based on “obedience”, meaning that they only followed the orders of their superiors.
An Experiment of Shocking Proportions
The participants in the most famous variation of the Milgram experiment were 40 men recruited using newspaper ads. In exchange for their participation, each person was paid $4.50.
Milgram developed an intimidating shock generator, with shock levels starting at 15 volts and increasing in 15-volt increments all the way up to 450 volts. The many switches were labeled with terms including “slight shock,” “moderate shock,” and “danger: severe shock.”
The final three switches were labeled simply with an ominous “XXX.”
Each participant took the role of a “teacher” who would then deliver a shock to the “student” whenever an incorrect answer was given. While the participant believed that he was delivering real shocks to the student, the “student” was a confederate in the experiment who was simply pretending to be shocked.
As the experiment progressed, the participant would hear the learner plead to be released or even complain about a heart condition. Once they reached the 300-volt level, the learner would bang on the wall and demand to be released.
Beyond this point, the learner became completely silent and refused to answer any more questions. The experimenter then instructed the participant to treat this silence as an incorrect response and deliver a further shock.
Most participants asked the experimenter whether they should continue. The experimenter issued a series of commands to prod the participant along:
“The experiment requires that you continue.“
“It is absolutely essential that you continue.“
“You have no other choice; you must go on.“
Did the Majority Deliver the Maximum Shock?
The measure of obedience was the level of shock that the participant was willing to deliver. How far do you think most participants were willing to go?
In his 1963 report on his research, Milgram posed this question to a group of Yale University students. The average prediction was that around 1% of participants would deliver the maximum shock.
In reality, 65% of the participants in Milgram’s study delivered the maximum shocks.
Of the 40 participants in the study, 26 delivered the maximum shocks, while 14 stopped before reaching the highest levels. It is important to note that many of the subjects became extremely agitated, distraught, and angry at the experimenter, but they continued to follow orders all the way to the end.
Due to concerns about the amount of anxiety experienced by many of the participants, everyone was debriefed at the end of the experiment. The researchers explained the procedures and the use of deception.
However, many critics of the study have argued that many of the participants were still confused about the exact nature of the experiment.
The Moral Questions Milgram Raised
Why did so many of the participants in this experiment perform a seemingly sadistic act when instructed by an authority figure? According to Milgram, there are some situational factors that can explain such high levels of obedience:
- The physical presence of an authority figure dramatically increased compliance.
- The fact that Yale (a trusted and authoritative academic institution) sponsored the study led many participants to believe that the experiment must be safe.
- The selection of teacher and learner status seemed random.
- Participants assumed that the experimenter was a competent expert.
- The shocks were said to be painful, not dangerous.