Milgram Behavioral Study Of Obedience Essay

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Stanley Milgram’s Behavioral Study Of Obedience

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum....”
― Noam Chomsky, The Common Good

“Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves.”
― Henry David Thoreau

In the early 1960’s Stanley Milgram (1963) performed an experiment titled Behavioral Study of Obedience to measure compliance levels of test subjects prompted to administer punishment to learners. The experiment had surprising results.

Purpose of the research.
Stanley Milgram’s (1963), Behavioral Study of Obedience measured how far an ordinary subject will go beyond their fundamental moral character to comply with direction from authority to punish another person, and at what point would they refuse to obey and end their participation.

The subjects and methods used.
Forty ordinary male citizens of New Haven and the surrounding New England areas-representing several occupations, ranging in the ages of twenty to fifty years old, were solicited and recruited under the premise of participating in a study of “memory and learning”. Each subject was compensated $4.50 for participating, and told that the payment was for their attendance to the Yale University laboratory, and no matter what the outcome the payment was theirs to keep. The controlled assignments were an experimenter/authority figure, portrayed by an impassive, somewhat stern thirty-one year old male, and the victim portrayed by a mild-mannered, likeable forty-seven year old male. Through rigged drawings, the uncontrolled assignments or subjects were always selected as teachers (Milgram, 1963).

To justify administration of electrical punishment the subjects were given a cover story that led them to believe their role was to help in a study to “find out just what effect different people have on each other as teachers and learners, and also what effect punishment will have on learning in his situation” (Milgram, 1963). The subjects were informed that the punishment would not cause permanent tissue damage, however, could be extremely painful. The subjects observed the learner/accomplice being prepared with electrodes strapped in a chair. The teacher/subjects read a series of word-pairs to the learner then read the first word of the pair along with four terms. The learner’s role was to pair the first word with the correct term (Milgram, 1963). The learner would then press one of four switches attached to an electrical shock generator indicating his response. Unknown to the teacher, “in all conditions the learner gives a predetermined set of responses to the word pair test, based on the schedule of approximately three wrong answers to one correct answer” (Milgram, 1963).

To authenticate the potential electrical intensity to the learner the teacher is sampled with a 45-volt shock to the wrist. The teacher is then instructed to administer an incrementally increasing punishing...

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Critical Analysis of Milgram Obedience Experiment

John | February 8, 2012

WritePass - Essay Writing - Dissertation Topics [TOC]


Critically discuss a classic experiment from the history of psychology (e.g. the Milgram Obedience Experiment, the Stanford Prison experiment). What, if any, relevance does it have to the present day?


Stanley Milgram’s obedience study (1963) has been extremely influential in psychology. Milgram investigated human’s willingness to obey authority figures and instructions. He found that 65 per cent of the research subjects followed instructions from an experimenter and administered the highest voltage shock possible to a learner, even when they were uncomfortable in doing so (Milgram, 1963). This finding contributed to theories in psychology.  Milgram’s method of conducting the experiment raised questions around ethics as deception was employed and the participants were distressed. This lead to the consideration of what is ethically acceptable and guidelines which protect participants being developed. These guidelines are in place today and therefore have an impact on the way in which current psychological research is conducted.



Stanley Milgram’s Obedience experiment (1963) is thought of as a ‘classic’ experiment in the history of psychology. It was conducted in response to the Nazi war trials where individuals claimed that they were ‘just following orders’. Milgram attempted to investigate if people would follow orders even if they felt that they were morally wrong.

Milgram’s study is well known for both its results and its means of obtaining them. Ethical issues were raised, which have relevance to today’s psychological research practice, with regards to the method the study employed. This essay will firstly outline Milgram’s Obedience Study, then it will discuss the ethical issues which were raised and it will look at the overall relevance that the experiment has in the present day.

Milgam was interested in researching how individuals would respond to figures of authority when they were given instructions to do something that they did not feel comfortable doing. Participants for the study were recruited through a newspaper advert to take part in an experiment on learning and teaching methods.  When they came to the laboratory the researcher showed them a device that was used to punish people who gave incorrect answers by means of an electric shock. The participant was meant to be the teacher and they were told that an individual in another room was the learner. The participant or teacher met the learner (who was privy to the true nature of the experiment) and witnessed the electrodes being strapped to their wrists. The learner expressed a degree of fear and questioned whether the shock would have any impact on their heart condition. The researcher told them that this was not something to worry about but they did inform them that the shocks could be extremely painful. During the learning session the teacher and learner were in different rooms and they communicated via intercom. The researcher told the teacher to increase the shock each time an incorrect answer was given. Regardless of uncertainty on behalf of the teacher, protests from the learner and latterly no sound at all from the learner, the researcher still instructed the teacher to administer the highest voltage possible. 65 per cent of the participants followed instructions and administered the highest voltage shock to the learner (Milgram, 1963).

Following the experiment participants were debriefed and they were informed that the shock apparatus was not real and that the protests from the learners were scripted. Many of the subjects expressed emotional upset as they thought that they were inflicting immense pain on another person and that the high voltage shocks that they apparently administered had the capacity to kill somebody. Milgram was criticised as being ‘insensitive to his subjects’ (Baumrind, 1964).

This study highlights ethical issues which are relevant in the present day. Perhaps Milgram could have tested his ideas on obedience without causing distress to his subjects. His experiment illuminates issues around deception. Deception occurs when subjects are not clearly and fully informed about the nature of the research (Glassman and Hadad, 2004). Milgram’s study influenced the current ethical guidelines that are in place and it is thought that his study would not be permitted now (Weiten, 2006). Modern ethical standards assert that participants must not be deceived, and that they must be told of any possible consequences. Guidelines stipulate that participants must take part on a voluntary basis and that they are free to withdraw at any point, that they are debriefed following the study and that there is an acceptable outcome of the research without harm being caused to subjects (British Psychological Society, 2009). It is thought that under these conditions no hurt can be caused to the participant. It may be argued that Milgram’s study influenced the way that Psychologist’s conduct their current research as it changed research ethics and design, whilst contributing greatly to theory in psychology.



It becomes clear that a great deal can be learnt from past research, Milgram’s study informed the field of social psychology in terms of theories on obedience and authority (Benjamin and Simpson, 2009). In addition to this, in response to what would now be seen as unethical methods, a change in the way in which Psychologist’s work emerged as new guidelines regarding the treatment of research participants were developed. As such this experiment is relevant to the present day psychology in many respects.



Baumrind, D. (1964). “Some thoughts on the ethics of research: After reading Milgram’s ‘Behavioral Study of Obedience.’” American Psychologist, Vol. 19, pp. 421-423.

Benjamin, L.T and Simpson, J.A. (2009) ‘The power of the situation: The impact of Milgram’s obedience studies on personality and social psychology’. American Psychologist, Vol. 64(1), pp. 12-19.

British Psychology Society, (2009). Code of Ethics and Conduct 2009 [Online]. Available from [Accessed: 26 May 2011].

Glassman, W.E and Hadad, M. (2004). Approaches to Psychology. Birkshire, UK: Open University Press.

Milgram, Stanley (1963). “Behavioral Study of Obedience”. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, Vol. 67 (4), pp. 371–378.

Weiten, W. (2006). Psychology: Themes and Variations. California: Wadsworth Publishing Co Inc.


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