One of the classics: Milgram (1963)


Aim: To investigate how far people would be prepared to go in obeying an authority figure, when the consequences involved inflicting pain upon another person (destructive obedience).

Method: Fourty men aged 20 to 50, from a range of occupations, volunteered to take part in a study on learning and memory. The study took place at Yale University. On arriving the psychology department, the participant was greeted by the experimenter who was always dressed in a grey laboratory coat. The participant was paid and then introduced to another ‘participant’, who was actually a stooge. They were told that the experiment was concerned with the effects of punishment on learning and that they would draw lots to decide who would be the teacher and who would be the learner. In fact the draw was fixed so the participant was always the teacher.

The participant watched as the learner was strapped into a chair, attached to electrodes linked to a shock generator and given a mild sample shock. The learner complained of a slight heart condition but was assured that although the shocks may be painful they would not be harmful.

The teacher was then taken to another room and seated in front of a shock generator. The shocks ranged from 15 volts to 450 volts in 15-volt increments. There were verbal descriptions beneath some of the shocks such as 225 ‘intense shock’ and 375 ‘danger: severe shock’. The job of the teacher was to test the learner on word pairs and every time a mistake was made to deliver a shock beginning at 15 volts and moving one level higher as necessary. The teacher was given a sample 45-volt shock before the study started.

The learner did not really receive any shocks but just acted as if he did. At 315 volts the teacher let out a violent scream and at 330 volts there was complete silence. If the teacher hesitated in giving a shock, the experimenter had a list of verbal prods which could be used such as ‘the experiment requires that you continue’ and ‘you have no other choice but to continue’.

Results: Before the study, Milgram asked staff, psychiatrists and students to predict how many of the participants would continue to the final 450 volts. The prediction was that most participants would refuse after 150 volts and less than one percent would go up to 450 volts. The results were that 100 percent of participants went up to 300 volts and 65 percent to the full 450 volts.

Conclusion: Ordinary people are capable of following orders even if these could result in potentially  killing another person.


  • The fact that American men in the 1960s participated restricts the generalisability of the results as they have little temporal and ecological validity.
  • Orne criticised Milgram’s work and claimed that the participants were acting merely under demand characteristics, making their behaviour inauthentic and therefore invalid. This is seen in a variation of Milgram’s study where the experimenter left the room and gave instructions by phone, in which obedience dropped by half of the 65 percent baseline, suggesting that the participants did not truly believe that the stooge was being harmed.
  • Baumrind has also criticised the study from an ethical stance, arguing that the participants were heavily deceived and harmed from the study. However, Milgram gave the participants a thorough debrief and checked upon their mental well-being in the long term after the study. Even immediately after the study and debrief, 80 percent of participants said that they were happy to have taken part and more relieved than angry of distressed.
  • Despite the ethical issues, this study has been an essential breakthrough in studies of obedience. Following post-war tension and discrimination, it also showed that America is just as capable of inflicting pain upon strangers as Germany. It also provides sound support for the situational explanation of obedience in which a person acts in an agentic state due to cues in their environment which they respond to (in this experiment: the grey lab coat, professional setting, proximity to the experimenter and gradual commitment among others).
  • Though there is debate about how valid the study is due to methodological issues such as the lack of generalisability to real life settings (as it was conducted in a laboratory), Bickman’s (1974) study found similar results about the effect of clothing as a situational cue on obedience, using better methodology such as a field setting with high ecological validity and no informed consent to ensure internal validity. This supports the idea that Milgram’s results were in fact valid.

Source: Billingham, M. et al (2008) AQA Psychology B AS: Student’s Book, Nelson Thornes: Cheltenham


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