Milgram experiment

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Health and medicine

The experimenter (E) orders the subject (S) to give what the subject believes are painful electric shocks to another subject (A), who is actually an actor. Many participants continued to give shocks despite pleas for mercy from the actor, as long as the experimenter kept on ordering them to do so.
The experimenter (E) orders the subject (S) to give what the subject believes are painful electric shocks to another subject (A), who is actually an actor. Many participants continued to give shocks despite pleas for mercy from the actor, as long as the experimenter kept on ordering them to do so.

The Milgram experiment was a series of famous scientific studies of social psychology, intended to measure the willingness of a participant to obey an authority who instructs the participant to do something that may conflict with the participant's personal conscience.

The experiment was first described in 1963 by Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University, and later discussed in his 1974 book, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View.

The experiments began in July 1961, three months after the start of 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 summed up in the article "The Perils of Obedience" writing:

The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous importance, 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' [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 explanation.

Method of the experiment

Subjects were recruited for the Yale study through newspaper ads and direct mail. The experiments occurred in two rooms in the basement of Linsly-Chittenden Hall on the university's Old Campus. The experiment was advertised as lasting one hour, for which the respondents would be paid $4.50 whether they completed the task or not. The participants were men between the ages of 20 and 50, from all educational backgrounds, ranging from an elementary school dropout to participants with doctoral degrees.

The role of the experimenter was played by a stern, impassive biology teacher dressed in a technician's coat, and the victim was played by an Irish-American accountant trained to act for the role. The participant and a confederate of the experimenter were told by the experimenter that they would be participating in an experiment to test the effects of punishment on learning.

A slip of paper was then given to the participant and another to the confederate. The participant was led to believe that one of the slips said "learner" and the other said "teacher," and that the participants had been given the slips randomly. In fact, both slips said "teacher," but the actor claimed to have the slip that read "learner," thus guaranteeing that the participant was always the "teacher." At this point, the "teacher" and "learner" were separated into different rooms where they could communicate but not see each other. In one version of the experiment, the confederate was sure to mention to the participant that he had a heart condition.

The "teacher" was given a 45-volt electric shock from the electro-shock generator as a sample of the shock that the "learner" would supposedly receive during the experiment. The "teacher" was then given a list of word pairs which he was to teach the learner. The teacher began by reading the list of word pairs to the learner. The teacher would then read the first word of each pair and read four possible answers. The learner would press a button to indicate his response. If the answer was incorrect, the learner would receive a shock, with the voltage increasing with each wrong answer. If correct, the teacher would read the next word pair.

The subjects believed that for each wrong answer, the learner was receiving actual shocks. In reality, there were no shocks. After the confederate was separated from the subject, the confederate set up a tape recorder integrated with the electro-shock generator, which played pre-recorded sounds for each shock level. After a number of voltage level increases, the actor started to bang on the wall that separated him from the subject. After several times banging on the wall and complaining about his heart condition, the learner gave no further responses to questions and no further complaints.

At this point, many people indicated their desire to stop the experiment and check on the learner. Some test subjects paused at 135 volts and began to question the purpose of the experiment. Most continued after being assured that they would not be held responsible. A few subjects began to laugh nervously or exhibit other signs of extreme stress once they heard the screams of pain coming from the learner.

If at any time the subject indicated his desire to halt the experiment, he was given a succession of verbal prods by the experimenter, in this order:

  1. Please continue.
  2. The experiment requires that you continue.
  3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  4. You have no other choice, you must go on.

If the subject still wished to stop after all four successive verbal prods, the experiment was halted. Otherwise, it was halted after the subject had given the maximum 450-volt shock three times in succession.


Before the experiment was conducted Milgram polled 14 Yale senior psychology majors as to what the results would be. All respondents believed that only a sadistic few (average 1.2%), would be prepared to give the maximum voltage. Milgram also informally polled his colleagues, and found that they believed very few subjects would go beyond a very strong shock.

In Milgram's first set of experiments, 65 percent (26 out of 40) of experimental participants administered the experiment's final 450-volt shock, though many were quite uncomfortable in doing so; everyone paused at some point and questioned the experiment, some even saying they would return the check for the money they were paid. No participant steadfastly refused to give further shocks before the 300-volt level. Variants of the experiment were later performed by Milgram himself and other psychologists around the world with similar results. Apart from confirming the original results the variations have tested variables in the experimental setup.

Dr. Thomas Blass of the University of Maryland Baltimore County performed a meta-analysis on the results of repeated performances of the experiment. He found that the percentage of participants who are prepared to inflict fatal voltages remains remarkably constant, between 61% and 66%, regardless of time or location.

There is a little-known coda to the experiment, reported by Philip Zimbardo. None of the participants who refused to administer the final shocks insisted that the experiment itself be terminated, nor left the room to check that the victim was well without asking for permission to leave, according to Milgram's notes and recollections when he was asked on this point by Zimbardo.

Milgram created a documentary film titled Obedience showing the experiment and its results. He also produced a series of five other films on social psychology, some of which touched on his experiments.


Milgram's experiment raised questions about the ethics of scientific experimentation because of the extreme emotional stress suffered by the participants. In Milgram's defence, 84 percent of former participants surveyed later said they were "glad" or "very glad" to have participated and 15 percent chose neutral (92% of all former participants responding). Many later wrote expressing thanks. Milgram repeatedly received offers of assistance and requests to join his staff from former participants. Six years later (during the height of the Vietnam War), one of the participants in the experiment sent correspondence to Milgram, explaining why he was "glad" to have been involved despite the apparent levels of stress:

While I was a subject [participant] in 1964, though I believed that I was hurting someone, I was totally unaware of why I was doing so. Few people ever realize when they are acting according to their own beliefs and when they are meekly submitting to authority. ... To permit myself to be drafted with the understanding that I am submitting to authority's demand to do something very wrong would make me frightened of myself. ... I am fully prepared to go to jail if I am not granted Conscientious Objector status. Indeed, it is the only course I could take to be faithful to what I believe. My only hope is that members of my board act equally according to their conscience...

However, not everyone went through the life-changing experience reported by some former participants. Participants were not fully debriefed by modern standards, and exit interviews appeared to indicate that many seemed to never fully understand the nature of the experiment.

The experiments also raised criticism of a more emotional nature, which have more to do with the implications of the experiments than the ethicality of the setup. Joe Dimow, a participant in the 1961 experiment at Yale, writes in Jewish Currents about his early withdrawal as a "teacher", suspicious "that the whole experiment was designed to see if ordinary Americans would obey immoral orders, as many Germans had done during the Nazi period". This was indeed one of the explicitly stated goals of the experiments. Quoting from the preface of Milgram's book, Obedience to Authority: "The question arises as to whether there is any connection between what we have studied in the laboratory and the forms of obedience we so deplored in the Nazi epoch."


Milgram describes 19 variations of the experiment that he conducted in Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. In general, he found that when the immediacy of the victim was increased, compliance decreased, and when immediacy of the authority increased, compliance increased (Experiments 1–4). For instance, in one variation where participants received instructions from the experimenter only by telephone (Experiment 2), compliance decreased to 21 percent; interestingly, a number of participants deceived the experimenter by pretending to continue the experiment. In the variation where immediacy of the "learner" was closest, participants had to physically hold the learner's arm onto a shock plate, which decreased compliance. In this latter condition, 30 percent completed the experiment.

In Experiment 8, women were used as participants (all of Milgram's other experiments used only men). Obedience did not differ significantly, though they indicated experiencing higher levels of stress.

In one version (Experiment 10), Milgram rented a modest office in Bridgeport, Connecticut, purporting to be run by a commercial entity called "Research Associates of Bridgeport" with no apparent connection to Yale, in order to eliminate the prestige of the university as a possible factor influencing participants' behaviour. The results of this experiment did not greatly differ from those conducted at the Yale campus.

Milgram also combined the power of authority with that of conformity. In these experiments, the participant was joined by one or two additional "teachers" (who were actually actors, like the "learner"). The behaviour of the participants' apparent peers strongly affected results. When two additional teachers refused to comply (Experiment 17), only four participants of 40 continued the experiment. In another version (Experiment 18), the participant performed a subsidiary task (such as reading the questions over the microphone or recording the learner's answers) with another "teacher" who complied fully. In this variation, only three of 40 defied the experimenter.

Some recent variations upon Milgram's experiment have suggested an interpretation that requires neither obedience nor authority but suggest that Milgram's participants suffer from a specialised form of learned helplessness where they feel powerless to control the outcome and so abjugate their responsibility.

Real life examples

Milgram's original experiment was performed in an attempt to understand why so many normal Germans went willingly along with Nazi experimentation.

From April of 1995 until June 30th 2004, there were a series of hoaxes upon fast food workers in popular fast food chains in America in which authority figures were persuaded to strip and sexually abuse workers under the disguise of being a policeman. The perpetrator achieved a high level of success in persuading workers to perform acts which they would not have done under normal circumstances. (The chief suspect, David R. Stewart, was found not guilty in the only case that has gone to trial so far. )

In popular culture

Variations on the Milgram experiment have pervaded the popular culture through film, TV and music. A partial list, arranged in chronological order of release:

  • The Tenth Level, was a 1975 TV dramatization of the experiment starring William Shatner, Ossie Davis, and John Travolta.
  • I comme Icare (English title: I as in Icarus), a 1979 movie by Henri Verneuil starring Yves Montand, contains a key scene where Milgram's experiment on obedience to authority is thoroughly explained and shown.
  • "Just A Job To Do" is a song recorded by Genesis on their 1983 album " Genesis". Guitarist/writer Mike Rutherford once stated that the lyrics were inspired by Milgram's experiment.
  • The comic V for Vendetta (published from 1982 to 1985) refers to the Milgram experiment on page 73 of the first volume, and compares it to experiments performed on V and other human characters in the novel.
  • In 1984 film, Ghostbusters contains a scene introducing Bill Murray's character to the audience as a sly professor administering electrical shocks to a hapless college student while flirting with an attractive co-ed. In the commentary track of the DVD release of the film, Harold Ramis says that this parody was inspired by the Milgram Experiment, and that it was included in the film to test the limits of what the audience would be willing to accept from the film's hero.
  • "We Do What We're Told (Milgram's 37)" is a Peter Gabriel song found on his 1986 album So. The title refers to the 37 out of 40 participants who showed complete obedience in Experiment 18.
  • In the 90th episode of Malcolm in the Middle broadcast on November 30, 2003 (Production Code: 06-03-505), Malcolm reveals humiliating secrets about his brother Reese for a school assignment by secretly videotaping conversations with him. His teacher Mr. Herkabe quotes the Milgram experiment after Malcolm has shown the video to his class.
  • Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, an Oscar-nominated documentary film directed by Alex Gibney and released in 2005, refers to the Milgram experiment as a rationale for the actions of Enron's line-level employees.
  • Alex Gibney also directed a documentary on Stanley Milgram, Phillip Zimbardo and the implications of their research, called The Human Behaviour Experiments, released in 2006.
  • In The Heist, a television show broadcast in the United Kingdom in 2006, Derren Brown uses the experiment to select which participants will proceed to the next stage of being persuaded to perform an "armed robbery".
  • The award-winning short film Atrocity (2005) re-enacts Milgram's experiment.
  • The suspense novel Nagle's Mercy (published in 2006) refers to the Milgram Experiment on page 42.

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