The Milgram Shock Experiment - Updated 2017
By Saul McLeod
November 19, 2019 "Information
Clearing House" - One of the most famous studies of obedience in
psychology was carried out by Stanley Milgram, a
psychologist at Yale University. He conducted an
experiment focusing on the conflict between
obedience to authority and personal conscience.
Milgram (1963) examined justifications for acts of
genocide offered by those accused at the World War
II, Nuremberg War Criminal trials. Their defense
often was based on "obedience"
- that they were just following orders from their
The experiments 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 accomplices?"
Milgram (1963) wanted to investigate whether
Germans were particularly obedient to authority
figures as this was a common explanation for the
Nazi killings in World War II.
Milgram selected participants for his experiment
by newspaper advertising for male participants to
take part in a study of learning at Yale
The procedure was that the participant was paired
with another person and they drew lots to find out
who would be the ‘learner’ and who would be the
‘teacher.’ The draw was fixed so that the
participant was always the teacher, and the learner
was one of Milgram’s confederates (pretending to be
a real participant)
The learner (a confederate called Mr. Wallace)
was taken into a room and had electrodes attached to
his arms, and the teacher and researcher went into a
room next door that contained an electric shock
generator and a row of switches marked from 15 volts
(Slight Shock) to 375 volts (Danger: Severe Shock)
to 450 volts (XXX).
Milgram (1963) was interested in researching how
far people would go in obeying an instruction if it
involved harming another person.
Stanley Milgram was interested in how easily
ordinary people could be influenced into committing
atrocities, for example, Germans in WWII.
Volunteers were recruited for a
controlled experiment investigating “learning”
(re: ethics: deception). Participants were 40
males, aged between 20 and 50, whose jobs ranged
from unskilled to professional, from the New Haven
area. They were paid $4.50 for just turning up.
At the beginning of the experiment, they were
introduced to another participant, who was a
confederate of the experimenter (Milgram).
They drew straws to determine their roles –
learner or teacher – although this was fixed and the
confederate was always the learner. There was also
an “experimenter” dressed in a gray lab coat, played
by an actor (not Milgram).
Two rooms in the Yale Interaction Laboratory were
used - one for the learner (with an electric chair)
and another for the teacher and experimenter with an
electric shock generator.
The “learner” (Mr. Wallace) was strapped to a chair
with electrodes. After he has learned a list of word
pairs given him to learn, the "teacher" tests him by
naming a word and asking the learner to recall its
partner/pair from a list of four possible choices.
The teacher is told to administer an electric
shock every time the learner makes a mistake,
increasing the level of shock each time. There were
30 switches on the shock generator marked from 15
volts (slight shock) to 450 (danger – severe shock).
The learner gave mainly wrong answers (on
purpose), and for each of these, the teacher gave
him an electric shock. When the teacher refused to
administer a shock, the experimenter was to give a
series of orders/prods to ensure they continued.
There were four prods and if one was not obeyed,
then the experimenter (Mr. Williams) read out the
next prod, and so on.
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.
65% (two-thirds) of participants (i.e., teachers)
continued to the highest level of 450 volts. All the
participants continued to 300 volts.
Milgram did more than one experiment – he carried
out 18 variations of his study. All he did was
alter the situation (IV) to see how this affected
Ordinary people are likely to follow orders given
by an authority figure, even to the extent of
killing an innocent human being. Obedience to
authority is ingrained in us all from the way we are
People tend to obey orders from other people if
they recognize their authority as morally right
and/or legally based. This response to legitimate
authority is learned in a variety of situations, for
example in the family, school, and workplace.
Milgram summed up in the article “The Perils of
Obedience” (Milgram 1974), writing:
'The legal and philosophic aspects of
obedience are of enormous import, but they say
very little about how most people behave in
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
Stark authority was pitted against the
subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral
imperatives against hurting others, and, with
the subjects’ [participants’] 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
Milgram (1974) explained the behavior of his
participants by suggesting that people have two
states of behavior when they are in a social
- The autonomous state –
people direct their own actions, and they take
responsibility for the results of those actions.
- The agentic state – people
allow others to direct their actions and then
pass off the responsibility for the consequences
to the person giving the orders. In other words,
they act as agents for another person’s will.
Milgram suggested that two things must be in
place for a person to enter the agentic state:
- The person giving the orders is perceived as
being qualified to direct other people’s
behavior. That is, they are seen as legitimate.
- The person being ordered about is able to
believe that the authority will accept
responsibility for what happens.
Agency theory says that people will obey an
authority when they believe that the authority will
take responsibility for the consequences of their
actions. This is supported by some aspects of
For example, when participants were reminded that
they had responsibility for their own actions,
almost none of them were prepared to obey. In
contrast, many participants who were refusing to go
on did so if the experimenter said that he would
The Milgram experiment was carried out many times
whereby Milgram (1965) varied the basic procedure
(changed the IV). By doing this Milgram could
identify which factors affected obedience (the DV).
Obedience was measured by how many participants
shocked to the maximum 450 volts (65% in the
original study). In total 636 participants have been
tested in 18 different variation studies.
In the original baseline study – the
experimenter wore a gray lab coat as a
symbol of his authority (a kind of uniform).
Milgram carried out a variation in which the
experimenter was called away because of a
phone call right at the start of the
The role of the experimenter was then
taken over by an ‘ordinary member of the
public’ ( a confederate) in everyday clothes
rather than a lab coat. The obedience level
dropped to 20%.
Change of Location
The experiment was moved to a set of run
down offices rather than the impressive Yale
University. Obedience dropped to 47.5%. This
suggests that status of location effects
When participants could instruct an
assistant (confederate) to press the
switches, 92.5% shocked to the maximum 450
volts. When there is less personal
responsibility obedience increases. This
relates to Milgram's Agency Theory.
The teacher had to force the learner's hand
down onto a shock plate when they refuse to
participate after 150 volts. Obedience fell
The participant is no longer buffered /
protected from seeing the consequences of
Social Support Condition
Two other participants (confederates) were
also teachers but refused to obey.
Confederate 1 stopped at 150 volts, and
confederate 2 stopped at 210 volts.
The presence of others who are seen to
disobey the authority figure reduces the
level of obedience to 10%.
Absent Experimenter Condition
It is easier to resist the orders from an
authority figure if they are not close by.
When the experimenter instructed and
prompted the teacher by telephone from
another room, obedience fell to 20.5%.
Many participants cheated and missed out
shocks or gave less voltage than ordered to
by the experimenter. The proximity of
authority figure affects obedience.
The Milgram studies were conducted in laboratory
type conditions, and we must ask if this tells us
much about real-life situations. We obey in a
variety of real-life situations that are far more
subtle than instructions to give people electric
shocks, and it would be interesting to see what
factors operate in everyday obedience. The sort of
situation Milgram investigated would be more suited
to a military context.
Orne and Holland (1968) accused Milgram’s study
of lacking ‘experimental realism,'’ i.e.,'
participants might not have believed the
experimental set-up they found themselves in and
knew the learner wasn’t receiving electric shocks.
Milgram's sample was biased:
Milgram’s findings have been replicated in a
variety of cultures and most lead to the same
conclusions as Milgram’s original study and in some
cases see higher obedience rates.
However, Smith and Bond (1998) point out that
with the exception of Jordan (Shanab & Yahya, 1978),
the majority of these studies have been conducted in
industrialized Western cultures and we should be
cautious before we conclude that a universal trait
of social behavior has been identified.
- Deception – the
participants actually believed they were
shocking a real person and were unaware the
learner was a confederate of Milgram's.
However, Milgram argued that “illusion is
used when necessary in order to set the stage
for the revelation of certain
Milgram also interviewed participants
afterward to find out the effect of the
deception. Apparently, 83.7% said that they were
“glad to be in the experiment,” and 1.3% said
that they wished they had not been involved.
- Protection of participants
- Participants were exposed to extremely
stressful situations that may have the potential
to cause psychological harm. Many of the
participants were visibly distressed.
Signs of tension included trembling,
sweating, stuttering, laughing nervously, biting
lips and digging fingernails into palms of
hands. Three participants had uncontrollable
seizures, and many pleaded to be allowed to stop
In his defense, Milgram argued that these
effects were only short-term. Once the
participants were debriefed (and could see the
confederate was OK) their stress levels
decreased. Milgram also interviewed the
participants one year after the event and
concluded that most were happy that they had
- However, Milgram did debrief
the participants fully after the experiment and
also followed up after a period of time to
ensure that they came to no harm.
Milgram debriefed all his participants straight
after the experiment and disclosed the true
nature of the experiment. Participants were
assured that their behavior was common and
Milgram also followed the sample up a year later
and found that there were no signs of any
long-term psychological harm. In fact, the
majority of the participants (83.7%) said that
they were pleased that they had participated.
- Right to Withdrawal - The
BPS states that researchers should make it plain
to participants that they are free to withdraw
at any time (regardless of payment).
Milgram give participants an opportunity to
withdraw? The experimenter gave four verbal
prods which mostly discouraged withdrawal from
- Please continue.
- The experiment requires that you
- It is absolutely essential that you
- You have no other choice, you must
Milgram argued that they are justified as the
study was about obedience so orders were
necessary. Milgram pointed out that although the
right to withdraw was made partially difficult,
it was possible as 35% of participants had
chosen to withdraw.
Milgram (1963) Audio
Below you can also hear some of the
audio clips taken from the video that
was made of the experiment. Just click on the
You will be asked to decide if you want to
open the files from their current location or
save them to disk. Choose to open them from
their current location. Then press play and sit
back and listen!
Clip 1: This is a long audio clip of the 3rd
participant administering shocks to the confederate.
You can hear the confederate's pleas to be released
and the experimenter's instructions to continue.
Clip 2: A short clip of the confederate refusing
to continue with the experiment.
Clip 3: The confederate begins to complain of
Clip 4: Listen to the confederate get a shock:
"Let me out of here. Let me out, let me out, let me
out" And so on!
Clip 5: The experimenter tells the participant
that they must continue.
This article was originally published by "Simply
Psychology" - -
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