The Shock Heard Around The World: Milgram’s Experiment

A participant during the experiment with the shock equipment. | Courtesy of Wikimedia

If you were ordered to deliver a 400-voltage-shock to another human being by an authority figure, would you do it? Most people would answer “No,” sure of the fact that they would never inflict pain on another person. However, the Milgram Experiment proved otherwise. Why is it that so many individuals obey orders when they are told to, even when they know the orders are wrong? Social psychologist Stanley Milgram researched the power of authority and obedience. Milgram’s experiment on obedience analyzes the psychological processes underlying compliance with orders to commit despicable acts.1 

Experiments began in July 1961, three months after the trial of World War II criminal, Adolf Eichmann. He was responsible for ordering the deaths of millions of Jews, but he said he was “just following orders.” He claimed that he did it simply because he was told to. This made Milgram question the power of authority. He questioned, “Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?” Throughout history soldiers have followed orders to murder innocent people. So many examples include the Nazi’s killing the Jews, the Turkish slaughter of the Armenians, and the Serbian killings of both Bosnian and Kosovar Muslims. We understand that these were terrible acts and wonder how anyone is capable of committing them. But how many of us would refuse to follow these orders if they came from an authority figure, someone in control, and who obtained power over you?2

Equipment for the Milgram experiment. | Courtesy of Wikimedia

The purpose of the experiment was to test whether ordinary people were capable of inflicting harm on others if an authority figure pressured them to do so. Using a newspaper ad, forty men were recruited for the experiment, and each person was paid $4.50. Participants were led to believe that they were assisting in an unrelated experiment, in which they had to administer electric shocks to a “learner.”  And they were told that the fake electric shocks were to be gradually increased to fatal levels, if they had been real. Three individuals took part in each session: the “experimenter” (in charge to the session), the “teacher” (the volunteer who was misled to believe that they were merely assisting), and the “learner” (an actor and a confederate of the experimenter who pretended to be a volunteer).3

A model of Milgram’s experiments set up. | Courtesy of Wikimedia

The actor and participant arrived to the session together, and they both drew slips of paper to determine their roles. Each slip of paper said “Teacher,” but the actor claims to have “Learner,” to guarantee that the subject will always be the “Teacher.” Milgram created a shock generator with different shock levels, starting at 30 volts and going all the way up to 450 volts. Each volt level had a label, such as “slight shock,” “moderate shock,” and “Danger: Extreme Shock.” Whenever an incorrect answer was given from the “Learner,” he was given a shock.4 The participant believed that he was delivering real shocks, but the “student” was a confederate in the experiment, and was just pretending to be shocked. As the experiment progressed, the experimenter would hear the student plead to be released or complain of a heart problem. Once it reached 300-volts, the student would demand to stop. The student would refuse to answer anymore questions, the experimenter instructed the participant to treat the silence like an incorrect answer and shock them.5

A participant during the experiment with the shock equipment. | Courtesy of Wikimedia

Most participants would start to feel they needed to stop before the voltages became too high. They would ask if they should continue and the experimenters would tell them specific verbal encouragements. These were given in this order: “Please continue,” and “The experiment requires that you continue,” and “It is absolutely essential that you continue,” or “You have no other choice, you must go on.” If the subject still wanted to stop after all of these verbal encouragements, the experimenter ended the experiment. If they did not choose to stop, it ended after the subject had given the maximum shock three times during the session. Out of the forty participants, twenty-six delivered the maximum shock while fourteen stopped before reaching the higher levels.6

Percentage of subjects who obeyed command vs. level of electrical shock. | Courtesy of Wikimedia

The experimenter used specific prods for any questions the subject may have had. If the subject was worried about the learner wanting to stop, the experimenter replied, “Whether the learner likes it or not, you must go on until he has learned all the word pairs correctly, so please go on.” While most of the participants were agitated at the experimenter, they still followed the orders that were given.7 The participants experienced anxiety from the experiment, and they learned the truth at the end. The researchers explained they used deception. Milgram raised moral questions, such as why did so many of the participants in this experiment perform a seemingly sadistic act when instructed by an authority figure? Milgram came to the conclusion that, “Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.” Milgram’s experiment has inspired psychologists around the world to research more about what makes people comply with orders and what makes them question authority.8

  1. Thomas Blass, The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram (Basic Books, 2004), 1-8.
  2. Stanley Milgram, “Behavioral Study of Obedience,” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, no.1 (1963): 1, accessed May 8, 2019, http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.424.795&rep=rep1&type=pdf.
  3. Stanley Milgram, “Behavioral Study of Obedience,” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, no.1 (1963): 1, accessed May 8, 2019, http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.424.795&rep=rep1&type=pdf.
  4. R. Brown, “Social Forces in Obedience and Rebellion,” Social Psychology 2, no. 1 (1986): 5.
  5. Stanley Milgram, “Some Conditions of Obedience and Disobedience to Authority,” Human Relations, no.1 (1965): 57.
  6. Eugen Tarnow, “Towards the Zero Accident Goal: Assisting the First Officer Moniter and Challenge Captain Errors,” Journal of Aviation/Aerospace Education and Research 10, no. 1 (2000): 30.
  7. Vladimir Tumanov, “Stanley Milgram and Siegfried Lenz: An Analysis of Deutschstunde in the Framework of Social Psychology,” Neophilologus: International Journal of Modern and Mediaeval Language and Literature, no.1 (2007): 146.
  8. Stanley Milgram, “Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View,” New York: Harper and Row, no.1 (1974): 15.

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. I was familiar with this experiment before I read this article, but I was definitely able to learn many details that I did not previously know, such as the fact that more than half of the participants delivered the maximum amount of shock, even though deciding not to go on any further wouldn’t necessarily harm them in any way. It is interesting that although their own health and lives were not even at risk, the majority of these participants still took orders from the “authority figure”. This article made me wonder how many of my own peers would succumb to orders from an authority figure when put in a similar situation. I think the author did a very good job of thoroughly explaining the experiment as well as emphasize the intentions of psychologists to continue research on the subject.

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