Milgram (1963) - Imfamous Social Psychology Experiment

Milgram (1963) – Obedience to Authority

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-378.

This study was published in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology in 1963.


Obedience is common element found in everyday life. From obeying teachers in school, policemen on the roads, to safety signs. We obey all the time, often blindly.

It is highly recommended that you read Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View  in order to get a better understanding of the material.

Milgram was interested in understanding how Nazi SS Officers and soldiers could commit the atrocities they did in the Holocaust. Milgram reasoned that there wasn’t a group of people who shared a common goal through free will, but a group of people who obeyed a common goal through successive obedience: Hitler sends his orders, his subordinates obey, their subordinates obey and so on. Milgram theorised that it was the social situation that caused ‘normal’ people to kill millions of innocent people.

Milgram’s study took part in an interaction laboratory in Yale University. (There were more subsequent studies in different locations such as a basement in the university, however we need not concern ourselves with these for the exam)

Aim of the Experiment

To investigate what level of obedience would be shown when participants were told by a figure of authority to administer electric shocks to another person.

To be able to quantify obedience.

To understand if Nazi soldiers are fundamentally different to normal people. This was the reason that Milgram originally had for creating this study.

Method and Design

The method was a Laboratory Experiment using an independent measures design. (Independent Measures design means that the participants only take part in one condition of the experiment!)
It also was a controlled observation.

Sample and Sampling Method

Volunteer sample using 40 male participants from the New Haven area. The participants were informed of the experiment from a newspaper advertisement and direct mail solicitation and they were all paid $4.50 just for turning up to Yale, they were told that they did not have to do anything after that. $4.00 was paid simply for showing up and $0.50 was paid for ‘car fare.’

The participants were all male and were aged between 20-50. They were from a variety of occupations and education levels.

Milgram excluded students from the study because he completed pilot study with only students and concluded that there is something fundamentally different about students.

No Control group was used.


Milgram made a ‘shock generator’ which did not deliver an electric shock, but did look very impressive and real. The shock generator had 30 switches marked in 15 volt intervals from 15 to 450 volts. Milgram also placed warnings on the shock generator, which corresponded to levels of electric shock. These started at: ‘Slight shock’ and moved through:
‘Moderate shock’
‘Strong shock’
‘Very strong shock’
‘Intense shock’
‘Extreme Instensity shock’
‘Danger severe shock’

This shock generator also created electric sounds, which served to increase the realism of the experiment.


Upon arriving to Yale University and being met by the experimenter who was wearing a grey lab coat. The subjects were told that they would be participating into a study of learning and memory. (This was in fact a lie, the study was looking into obedience)

When the participants were escorted inside by the experimenter they met another person, who they were told was another participant. In reality this second participant was really a confederate of the experimenter.

The experimenter told the participant that they would be taking part in the experiment as either a ‘learner’ or a ‘teacher.’ In reality the experimenter’s confederate would always be the ‘learner’ and the real participant would be always be the ‘teacher.’ The way that the experiment would keep this from the participant was by telling the confederate and the participant to pick straws to decide who would be the learner and who would be the teacher. Of course, the real participant would always be the teacher. Once the participant has been told that they were to play the role of the teacher. The confederate was taken to another room and the participant was shown the confederate being strapped to a chair and having electrodes placed on their head. After this the participant was taken to another room adjacent to the room in which the learner was held.

In the room that the participant had been taken to had a shock generator, which was fake, but looked and sounded real.

The experimenter told the participant that their job was to teach the learner a list and if the learner repeated one of the list items incorrectly then the teacher was to give them a shock. The teacher was to shock the learner first at 15 volts and then increase the voltage by 15 volts for each subsequent wrong answer that the learner gave. The maximum voltage that the teacher could go to on the shock generator was 450 volts.

The teacher was told that the shocks can be painful, but not harmful.

The learner, Mr. Wallace reported that he had a heart condition.

Before the administering any of the shocks to the learner. The experimenter gave a the teacher a shock of 45 volts. This was to make a teacher believe that the shock generator was real. Of course, the shock generator was not real and the learner was not harmed.

As the teacher increased the shocks recordings of the learner complaining were played.

At 300 volts the learner was heard to pound on the wall and was screaming in agony. After 300 volts the learner refused to continue and repeat the list anymore. The experimenter told the participant to continue giving shocks in the absence of a reply from the learner.

If at any point during the experiment the participant refused to go on, then the experimenter had four phrases or prods that he would use to coerce the participant to continue with the experiment. After the experimenter had used all four prods if the participant refused to continue the experiment was stopped and the participant was debriefed.

Here are the four prods:

  • ‘Please continue/go on’
  • ‘The experiment requires that you continue’
  • ‘You have no other choice, you must go on’
  • ‘Although the shocks may be painful they are not harmful’

When the participant was debriefed they were told about the true nature of the experiment and were introduced to Mr. Wallace so they could see that he was not hurt in anyway. This is very important from an ethical point of view, think about how you would feel if you thought that you had hurt or killed someone.

Quantitative Results

Milgram had predicated that less than 3% of the participants would continue to 450 volts. This prediction is not confirmed by the results of the study. In fact Milgram was almost completely wrong in his prediction.

100% of all the 40 participants reached 300 volts on the shock generator. At this point only 5 participants refused to continue anymore with the experiment.

At 375 volts a further 9 participants refused to go further

26 or 65% of the participants went to 450 volts, which was the maximum level of shock that could possibly be administered.

Qualitative Results

Participants sweated, trembled, stuttered, bit their lips, groaned, dug fingernails into their flesh, and these were typical not exceptional responses.

Quite a common sign of tension was nervous laughing fits (14 out of 40 participants), which seemed entirely out of place, even bizarre.

On one occasion, a participant had such a violently convulsive seizure that the experiment had to be halted.


– Milgram concluded that there were a number of factors that contributed to the participants high level of obedience. These include: location – the experiment took place in the interaction laboratory in Yale University. This prestigious institution may have in part caused some of the obedience. In fact Milgram replicated his study in a number of different locations to test this hypothesis and found that location did indeed play a part in levels of obedience. The formality of the situation was believed to have contributed to the obedience witnessed, if the situation was less formal, we could expect to see far less obedience than was witnessed. Further potential reasons for the level of obedience witnessed include:

– Worthy purpose of the study – the participant thought that the experiment had a noble purpose.
– Learner had volunteered – the participants volunteered for the study, which may suggest that they have common characteristics that may have been the true cause of such high levels of obedience.
– Commitment to experiment – the participants had been paid for their time and therefore they may have felt that they had an obligation to continue.
– Teachers role occurred by apparent chance – as the participants thought that they could have been the teacher or the learner, this may have had an impact upon the results.
– Closed setting – as the interaction laboratory was closed off from the outside world the participants may have obeyed because no one else could see them.
– Little time for reflection – if the participants hesitated in any way the experimenter would use one of the prods. This means that the participant did not have much time to think about their actions and this may have contributed to their obedience.
– Told shocks were not dangerous – the experimenter told the participants that the ‘shocks are painful but not harmful’ therefore the participants may have been more willing to obey the experimenter.
– Up until shock 20, learner was still participating – only after the 20th shock did the learner refuse to continue and that may have contributed to the obedience witnessed.
– Conflict: not to harm others vs obedience to authority – the participants may have simply chosen the simplest and easiest option.

There were two proposed explanations of the obedience witnessed:

Individual explanation – Something about them as people caused them to obey.

Situational explanation – the situation they were in influenced them to behave in the way that they did. Factors influencing this were that they had volunteered for an experiment for which they had been paid, the formality of the location and the behaviour of the experimenter. This is the explanation that was favoured by Milgram because he was a social psychologist.

Milgram (1963) Evaluation

– Ethics – the study is one of the most infamous studies in Psychology’s history, because of it’s ethics. The study is very low in ethical principles. Although the participants were given the right to withdraw, they certainly were not made fully aware of it. The participants were also paid for their time and this is highly unethical, because payment can leave participants feeling obligated to continue with the experiment despite any objections they may have. The participants were also not protected from harm.

+ Ethics – the only part of the study that was high in ethical principles was the debrief that the participants were given at the end of the study.

+ Laboratory Experiment – the use of a laboratory experiment is a strength because it allows the experimenter to control many of the extraneous and confounding variables, this increases the validity of the results and conclusions of the study because we can see that the independent variable caused the change.

– No control group – having no control group means that the validity of the study is somewhat low because the experimenter cannot establish if the independent variable caused the change, it may have been something in the participants that caused the results and not the authority figure.

+ Reliability – the use of a laboratory experiment is a strength because it increases the reliability of the results and conclusions of the study.

– Ecological validity – the use of a laboratory experiment is a weakness because it means that the ecological validity is low, therefore the results cannot be easily generalised to real life situations. This is furthered as the participant was put in a novel situation, that is it was not a situation that they would find themselves in, in normal life. Furthermore, we can argue that the experiment has not informed us about obedience in everyday life and that it has only informed us about the obedience in that one situation.

– Demand characteristics – as the participants were paid for their time, demand characteristics may have played a part in the participant’s levels of obedience, they may have felt an obligation to the experimenter and thus they followed what the experimenter wanted.

– Representativeness – the sample was not representative of a the German people, nor was the sample representative of a wide population. The sample was also androcentric – it contained only men. Therefore we can argue that the results and conclusions of the study are not generalisable to wider population.

+ Quantitative data – the collection of quantitative data is a strength because it is easy to compare, easy to analyse and can be easily tested for reliability.

– Quantitative data – on the other hand, the collection of quantitative data makes it difficult to establish cause and effect, the experimenter has to infer cause and effect.

+ Qualitative data – the use of qualitative data is a strength because it makes it easy to establish cause and effect. Secondly, qualitative data is rich in detail, which can help bring out more information about the participants thoughts.

– Qualitative data – on the other hand, the collection of qualitative data makes it difficult to compare the results.

+ Usefulness – the experiment is useful because it does provide some support for the hypothesis that ‘Nazi soldiers were fundamentally different to normal people. Moreover, the study is useful because it tells us that we have a tendency to follow people with authority.

– Usefulness – it could be argued that due to the limitations of the study: ecological validity, etc… that the usefulness of the study is somewhat limited. The usefulness of the study is also limited in the sense that although the study tells us that we have a tendency to follow people with authority, it does very little to explain why this occurs.


Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-378.

Further Reading

Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View

Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments

The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil

Psych Yogi’s Top Ten Psychology Revision Tips for the A* Student

Milgram (1963) - Obedience to Authority
Article Name
Milgram (1963) - Obedience to Authority
Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-378.

One thought on “Milgram (1963) – Obedience to Authority

Comments are closed.