Milgram Obedience Experiment

A thorough re-examination of Obedience to Authority (Milgram, 1974), a seminal work, is warranted from both a historical and moral standpoint. Stanley Milgram originally reported his findings in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology in 1963, stating that 65% of gullible subjects were coerced into giving an individual deadly electrical shock after they provided wrong responses in a memory learning experiment.

What is the experiment about?

In 1960s, Stanley Milgram, who was working at Yale University as a psychologist, carried out a number of obedience tests, which produced some unexpected results. Participants in the research were given orders to administer what they perceived to be harmful electrical shocks to another individual. These findings revealed that people are very susceptible to authority and quite submissive.

However, in recent times, some of the implications of Milgram's findings, as well as the outcomes and methods themselves, have been questioned by analysts. The study has undeniably had a substantial influence on psychology, notwithstanding its flaws.

It is interesting to share that, after World War II, in 1961, criminal Adolf Eichmann had trialled and then, Milgram began his experiments. Milgram was intrigued by Eichmann's justification that he was only carrying out orders when he ordered the murder of millions of Jews.

The Experiment

For $4.00 per hour of their time, 40 guys were enlisted for the experimental experiment. The Milgram shock generator was demonstrated to the recruits. The shock generator was equipped with switches that could produce shocks at progressively higher voltages, starting at 30 volts and going up in 15-volt steps until reaching 450 volts. Over the switches, there were labels that read "Slight Shock," "Moderate Shock," and "Danger: Severe Shock." The only marking on the last two switches was a menacing "XXX." The test mimicked a setting where a teacher, learner, and experimenter are all present. Three people were chosen for each session. Three of them participated in the experiment: the recruit, a collaborator of the researcher who served as the Learner, and Milgram himself as the Teacher. Of course, the roles were assigned by drawing straws, but everything was predetermined so that the recruit could only choose to play the Teacher.

The experimenter made care to let the Teacher (recruit) know that the Learner, who was actually a confederate of the experimenter and was not known to the Teacher, had a heart condition. In the other room, the experimenter showed the teacher the learner with electrodes tied to a chair. Next, a list of word pairs for the Teacher to teach the Learner was provided. The Learner heard the Teacher recite the list of word pairs at the beginning. Then, the list's first word of a pair was added, along with four potential responses.

The learner selected a button to submit his response. If the response was incorrect, the teacher shocked the student; the voltage increased by 15 volts for each false response. If accurate, the teacher would then read the next word pair. However, although the recruit (Teacher) thought that physical shocks were being administered, nothing of the like was really done.

The Learner would start to knock on the wall and beg for the shocks to stop after receiving many high-intensity shocks. Although a few of the volunteers opted out of the experiment, the majority continued to deliver stronger shocks in deference to the involved authoritative method. The experimenter would simply provide the orders listed below in the correct order whenever the teacher questioned whether the experiment should continue−

  • Please go ahead.

  • You must carry out the experiment.

  • It is imperative that you keep going.

  • You must continue because you have no other option.

After the fourth consecutive command, the experiment was stopped if the teacher continued to insist on stopping it. When the individual delivered the maximum 450-volt shock three times in a row, the experiment would have ended.


Despite their apparent reluctance, 65% of the recruits gave the Learner shocks at 450 levels. All contestants kept going till 300 volts. The individuals' tension and stress levels varied during the trial. Some of the subjects even experienced nervous laughter fits or convulsions, along with other symptoms including sweating, shaking, stuttering, biting their lips, moaning, and pressing their fingernails into their skin. They nonetheless kept giving shocks in accordance with orders.

Ethical Issues with the Milgram Experiment

Like all other theories and experiments, Milgram’s test had also faces intense criticism and was one of the prime topics of debate. The morality of his research was seriously questionable from the beginning. Participants experienced severe emotional and psychological anguish.

The following were a few of the experiment's key ethical problems−

  • The practice of deceit

  • The absence of protection for the interested parties

  • Participants' right to withdraw is interfered with by the experimenter's pressure to continue even after they want it to cease.

Everyone was purportedly questioned at the end of the trial due to worries about the level of anxiety felt by several of the participants. The researchers described their steps and the use of deceit.

Influence of the Milgram Experiment

It is hard to evaluate whether Milgram's experiment actually teaches us anything about the strength of obedience because there is no way to fully reproduce it owing to major ethical and moral issues.

Perry is of the opinion that the research has evolved into what she refers to as a "strong fable," despite all of its ethical problems and the dilemma of never being able to fully recreate Milgram's methodology. Milgram's research may not have all the answers about what motivates individuals to comply or even how much they actually do. However, it has motivated other academics to investigate why individuals accept instructions and, maybe more crucially, why they challenge authority.


The Milgram experiment and its replications were designed to further scientific understanding of the circumstances under which subjects would continue to accept an authority figure's commands. Participants in Milgram's experiment and its numerous replications were urged to carry out actions that they and others viewed as degrading. The idea that only people on the cruel edge of society would shock the Learner at the most extreme degrees is refuted by his results. Ordinary individuals from the working, management and professional classes made up Milgram's participants, and under some circumstances, more than half delivered the maximum shock.

Updated on: 11-May-2023


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