The concerning consequences of following authority – Milgram’s Obedience Test

Written by Science, Science & Tech

Milgram’s Obedience Experiment, carried out by Stanley Milgram at Yale University, is renowned for completely changing the outlook on social psychology. The experiment brought into question whether there was an explanation behind some of the world’s most devastating and shocking events, such as The Holocaust and Nuremberg Trails. So what was the experiment about, what did the results reveal, and do different views on the results make us doubt conclusions drawn from one of the most famous psychology experiments in history?

The aim of the experiment was to see to what extent participants in the experiment would continue to follow instructions from an authority figure, even if it involves harming someone else. This experiment was based of Milgram’s interest in the ability of ordinary people to be induced by authority to commit terrible acts, such as the Nazis in World War Two.

The experiment involved 40 male participants who represented a range of the population within the area, as they were from a variety of different ages, professions and backgrounds. They were under the impression that they would draw straws with another participant to either be assigned as a ‘learner’ or a ‘teacher’.

However, one participant was an actor and so the actual volunteer would always be assigned as ‘teacher’, and the actor a ‘learner’.

There was also an ‘experimenter’ present, another actor who would be in charge of the session. The experimenter told the participant they would be taking part in an experiment which investigated the effect of punishment on the ability of memory.

The participant was then placed in a separate room from the ‘learner’. The room in which the ‘learner’ was located, contained an electric chair to which the actor was strapped with electrodes, which were connected to an electric shock generator located in the room with the real participant/’teacher’ and the ‘experimenter’.

This meant that the ‘learner’ and ‘teacher’ could communicate, however not see one another.

The exercise of the experiment was that the ‘learner’ would be given pairs of words to memorize. Then, the ‘teacher’ would say one of the two words out of one of the pairs, and then give four possible options of what the pair of that word would be.

If the ‘learner’ selected the incorrect option, then the ‘teacher’ would have to administer a shock to the ‘learner’ which started at 15 volts, and increased in 15 volt intervals each time up to 450 volts, which could be lethal.

The participant believed that the shocks they were supplying were legitimate as they had been given a ‘sample shock’ of 15 volts before, so they had an indication of the minimal discomfort the ‘learner’ would feel.

However, there was actually no real shocks to the ‘learner’ and all pain was acting, as well as the ‘learner’ purposefully getting answers wrong in an attempt to test the real participant as to how far they would obey orders, when being aware of the obvious pain and discomfort they were causing someone else.

If the ‘teacher’ refused to deliver any more shocks to the ‘learner’, the ‘experimenter’ would then use four ‘prod’ statements, with the next statement being used if the participant still refused to administer more shocks:

Prod 1: Please continue.

Prod 2: The experiment requires you to continue.

Prod 3: It is absolutely essential that you continue.

Prod 4: You have no other choice but to continue.

The experiment was only terminated once the participant either still refused to administer shocks after all four prod statements, or if the participant has administered the maximum voltage 3 times consecutively.

The results of the experiment revealed that 65% continued to the highest voltage, and all the participants continued to 300 volts, which is still a dangerously high level.

However, all were uncomfortable in applying this amount of distress to the ‘learner’ and paused at least once to question the morality of the experiment, although as shown by the results they were soon convinced by the ‘experimenter’ to continue.

Upon analysing the results, Milgram concluded in his article ‘The Perils of Obedience’ that in social circumstances people have two different states of behaviour. The autonomous state, in which they take responsibility for their own actions, and the agentic state. This is when people allow others to dictate their actions as a result of obedience to authority being taught as people grow up.

Therefore, people believe authority is legally or morally based, so they are inclined to follow it over their own moral thoughts.

Milgram also carried out variations of the experiment which presented similar results, however there was criticism of the study.

This was for several reasons, one including the moral principle of the emotional trauma caused to the participants, however it was revealed in a study taken by the participants that 84% were glad they had participated.

Another criticism was Milgram’s claim of applicability of his experiment to the Holocaust, as critiques claimed that dissimilarly to the Holocaust, participants were assured beforehand no permanent damage would occur to the ‘learner’, the participants weren’t motivated to harm the learners (particularly as a result of race), and the participants experienced internal conflict when giving punishment unlike those responsible for harm in the Holocaust.

Furthermore, the validity of the results has come into question as it has been implied that some participants were aware the shocks weren’t real and that Milgram had manipulated results, as there was a mismatch in published results/methods and evidence of what actually happened.

Therefore, whilst this experiment should put into question and raise concerns of people’s actions under authority and how society has developed its behaviours, there is an element of doubt of how applicable the results are to some the world’s most disturbing historic events.

Last modified: 19th November 2018

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