Next to Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, Stanley Milgram’s obedience studies are arguably the most famous, influential and controversial of psychology experiments.
The obedience studies started in 1961 at Yale University when Milgram was just a 27-year-old assistant professor. Muzafer Sherif, also a pioneer in social psychology who conducted experiments at a summer camp to test intergroup conflict, remarked that: “Milgram’s obedience experiment is the single greatest contribution to human knowledge ever made by the field of social psychology, perhaps psychology in general.”
At the time, before Sherif and Milgram’s experiments, researchers believed that individuals who inflicted harm on others, particularly the horrific acts of the Holocaust, were somehow different from the “normal” public. Much of the research concentrated on exploring the authoritarian personality.
But Milgram believed otherwise.
Why Milgram Conducted the Obedience Experiments
Stanley Milgram was born to Jewish parents in 1933 in New York City. In an article in The Psychologist, his widow, Alexandra Milgram, writes that Milgram’s interest in the Holocaust was piqued when witnessing his parents listening to the radio during World War II. His interest was further fueled by his postdoctoral work with another renowned psychologist, Solomon Asch. Asch’s famous experiments looked at the influence of peer pressure on conformity.
Alexandra Milgram also writes:
Before he even started at Yale, he conceived of and developed his ideas to do his experiments on obedience to authority. This was an outgrowth of his early interest in the Holocaust. He wondered, in a civilised country like Germany that had produced great scientists and artists, how the German government could find all the people needed to press the levers in all of the concentration camps during World War II to exterminate thousands of people. It was not just one ‘crazy’ man.
(By the way, be sure to read her entire article. She shares a really interesting anecdote about how Milgram began his graduate studies in psychology.)
In fact, he felt very close to the Jewish people of German-speaking communities. In a letter from France to a childhood friend, Milgram wrote:
My true spiritual home is Central Europe, not France, the Mediterranean countries, England, Scandinavia or Northern Germany, but that area which is bounded by the cities of Munich, Vienna and Prague…. I should have been born into the German-speaking Jewish community of Prague in 1922 and died in a gas chamber some 20 years later. How I came to be born in the Bronx Hospital, I’ll never quite understand.
(This excerpt appears in Thomas Blass’s The Man Who Shocked The World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram.)
The Obedience Experiments
Milgram wanted to test whether ordinary individuals would administer electric shocks to another person when instructed by an authority figure, the experimenter. He recruited 40 men from a newspaper ad to participate in the experiment.
Basically, the men were told to deliver shocks to a “student” (really a confederate) when the individual answered a question incorrectly. They began with 15 volts, and then each shock increased by 15-volt increments, going all the way up to 450 volts.
The results were appalling: Sixty-five percent of participants delivered all the electric shots even while the person was screaming in pain and begging for the shocks to stop.
Milgram’s obedience experiments were intricately designed. Early in his life, he was very passionate about the opera and musicals. (According to his widow, he even collaborated on two musicals.) According to this piece in The Psychologist:
As recently documented by Nestar Russell (2011; see also his ‘Looking back’ piece in the September 2010 issue of The Psychologist: www.bps.org.uk/nestar), Milgram put great efforts into the set (much care was put into designing the shock machine as a huge, intimidating and imposing piece of equipment), he put great effort into the actors (spending considerable time carefully recruiting his confederates), and he put much effort into the script (the prompts used by the experimenter were carefully designed as were the reactions of the ‘learner’ who supposedly received the shocks). The ultimate effect was as compelling for the viewer as for the participant. Milgram made a film of the studies with the simple title Obedience. Watch it. As the participants agonise over what to do, as they struggle over whether to heed the words of the experimenter or the cries of the learner, it is hard to tear oneself away. Milgram’s studies endure as great drama as well as great science.
What We Know Today
Milgram, according to The Psychologist, conducted over 40 versions of his obedience paradigm. Since then, researchers have partially replicated Milgram’s research. That’s because due to ethical standards (which weren’t established when Milgram did his work), they’ve had to change the experimental design.
For instance, Jerry Burger, professor of psychology at Santa Clara University, California, adjusted his experiments to a 150-volt shock (not 450 like Milgram’s original). He found that 70 percent of participants administered the shock. He’s written about replicating the research here. (Other researchers have used virtual reality to simulate conditions.)
Burger believes that certain features in Milgram’s experiment “made it difficult for participants to do anything but go along with the experimenter’s instructions.” In a piece in The Psychologist, Burger lists four reasons, which, in part, are explained with research conducted after Milgram’s studies: “the use of small increments; diffused or missing responsibility; placing participants in a novel situation; and the limited amount of time participants had to act.”
Remember that participants in Milgram’s experiments delivered shocks in 15-volt increments. If they had to start off with the 450 volts, it’s doubtful that participants would’ve complied. According to Burger:
A wealth of research conducted in the past five decades tells us that getting people to respond to a small request is an effective first step toward changing attitudes and behaviours. Pressing the first lever on the shock generator made it easier for participants to press the second lever, which made it easier to press the next lever, etc.
At least two processes contribute to this effect. One is the oft-demonstrated need for consistency (Harmon-Jones & Harmon-Jones, 2007). The other is a self-perception process (Bem, 1972). That is, as they proceeded through the experiment, participants may have come to see themselves as the kind of person who chooses to deliver electric shocks in this setting or the kind of person who goes along with the experimenter’s instructions despite the learner’s protests. This change in self-perception then could have influenced subsequent decisions on whether to press the next lever. In this way, the procedure Milgram developed resembles the well-known ‘foot-in-the-door’ effect (Burger, 1999).
Milgram’s experiments, Burger writes, also made it easy for participants to deny their responsibility in shocking the students, and instead put the blame on the experimenter, who instructed them to do so. In general, research has shown that individuals behave badly when they diffuse responsibility. He writes:
We now know that people are more likely to engage in antisocial and aggressive behaviours when they are released from responsibility for their actions (Jaffee et al., 1981). Bandura (1999) has identified this absence of personal responsibility as a cause of moral disengagement that contributes to ‘the perpetuation of inhumanities’. Indeed, people are often motivated to attribute responsibility to others. Most famously, individuals are not likely to help someone in need as long as they can diffuse responsibility for taking action to the people around them (Latane & Darley, 1970).
To examine the role of personal responsibility in Milgram’s experiment, I recently coded transcripts from my replication (Burger et al., 2011). Judges identified instances in which participants spontaneously made comments indicating that they felt personally responsible for the learner’s suffering. Among the participants who ended the study early, 66.7 per cent made at least one comment during the session suggesting that they felt responsible for the welfare of the learner. In contrast, only 12.2 per cent of the participants who followed the experimenter’s instructions to the end of the study expressed this sentiment.
When we’re placed in novel situations, we usually look to others to show us what to do and how to proceed. So another reason participants behaved the way they did might’ve been because they relied on the experimenter’s expertise. Burger writes:
Although Milgram’s participants typically had little or no information about what others might do in this novel situation, they did have someone who was a bit of an expert in the room. The experimenter knew all about the study and had presumably seen numerous participants and learners in this situation before. His words and actions told participants essentially that ‘nothing is wrong here; continuing the shocks is the right thing to do’. In other words, participants may have gone along with the experimenter’s instructions not because he held a position of power, but because they were relying on his expertise (Morelli, 1983).
And, lastly, Burger says that there was simply not enough time for thoughtful reflection. When conducting his own replication of Milgram’s research, Burger realized just how little time is built into the experiment for the participant to accomplish all the steps.
The teacher’s role required him or her to find and read the correct test item, note the learner’s response, determine whether the response was correct and inform the learner, give the correct response for incorrect answers, find the next shock lever, announce the strength of the shock, administer the shock, and then repeat the process. Any pauses or delays were met immediately by the experimenter with prods to continue or instructions of what to do next (e.g. ‘The next word is…’). From the outset, participants were instructed to move the process along ‘at a brisk pace’.
He speculates that if given more time to think through their decision, participants wouldn’t have continued delivering the shocks.
The brisk pace not only kept things moving, it also prevented Milgram’s participants from stopping to ponder whether they should end the study or continue with the next item. What would have happened if, after first hearing the learner’s protests, the experimenter had given the teacher a few minutes to decide what he wanted to do? My guess is that significantly fewer participants would have opted to continue. People who insist they would never have gone along with the experimenter’s instructions fail to recognise that participants did not have the benefit of putting the question they were facing in perspective and considering the arguments on both sides. We now know that demands for our attention make it difficult to engage in this kind of cognitive processing. Researchers find that giving participants distracting tasks interferes with their ability to evaluate the quality of arguments (Harkins & Petty, 1981) or to make accurate attributions for other people’s behaviour (Gilbert et al., 1988). Participants in these settings typically attend to the most salient information (e.g. an expert telling them it is OK to continue) and rely on cognitive shortcuts or heuristics to guide their behaviour. Particularly in the early stages of Milgram’s study, this kind of information processing likely made it easy for participants to start down the slippery slope of doing what the experimenter told them.
Regardless of the flaws in Milgram’s experiments, one thing is for certain: The obedience studies have and will continue to have a great deal of influence.