Obedience and Milgram Experiment

Edited by Jamie (ScienceAid Editor), Taylor (ScienceAid Editor), MaxScience, Sharingknowledge

Obedience can be said to be at the most extreme end of influence, it is obeying an order; and has particular relevance in society with many soldiers claiming they were "obeying orders" to commit war crimes, for instance.

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Study: Stanley Milgram 1963

This study by Milgram is extremely famous and has been repeated numerous times across the world.

Aim To find out if Americans would obey an unjust order to inflict pain on someone else.
Method 40 male participants were selected after replying to a newspaper ad. At the start of the experiment they met a man called Mr Wallis, a mild-mannered man in his fifties; who was then hooked up to a charge generator. He was in fact a confederate.

The participant sat in another room and tested 'Mr Wallis' on word pairs, when he got one wrong, the participant was to give him an electric shock. These increased as more incorrect answers were given from 15 to 450 volts. Each time a shock was given a pre-recorded sound played indicating Mr Wallis in varying degrees of pain, until after 315 volts there was an eerie silence. Another confederate called 'Mr Williams', wearing a lab coat encouraged the participant to continue (this was the authority figure).

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Results All went up to at least 300 volts. 65% went up to 450.
Conclusion Under certain circumstances, most people will obey orders.


There are a lot of evaluation points on this research, many of which can be applied to other pieces of research into obedience; if you are here looking for help with an essay on this. They can be categorized as either ethical or methodological - how the experiment was carried out.

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  1. 1
    Ethical Deception
    In the Milgram experiment, the participants were lead to believe it was a study into memory.
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  2. 2
    Those who continued to the end (most of them) may have thought they had killed Mr Wallis.
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  3. 3
    Right to withdraw
    Because it was an experiment into obedience, the participants may have thought they couldn't leave, since Mr Williams prevented them if they tried.
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  4. 4
    Methodological Limited Sample
    Only men and people from one town were used. There were age restrictions on those who could participate; the sample was self-selected (i.e people chose themselves and this is only a certain personality type).
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  5. 5
    Ecological Validity Poor
    Giving electric shocks is not an usual task, or indeed a task that someone would ever have done before.
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  6. 6
    'Experimental Realism
    The participants may not have believed the experiment was real, so they are more likely to carry on as they don't think they're really harming someone.
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  7. 7
    Demand Characteristics
    Since they are aware of being in an experiment, the behaviour of the participants may be altered.
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Defiance is going against or disobeying an order from an authority figure.

Factors which affect defiance and levels of obedience were investigated by Milgram in variations of his original experiment. All examples below refer to his variations and the numbers compared with 65% in the original. Teacher refers to participant and learner 'Mr Wallis.'

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  1. 1
    'Proximity to Authority / Victim
    The closer one is to the authority or the victim of the authority, the less obedience there is. Teacher and learner in the same room: 40%. Teacher has assistant to press switch: 92.5%.
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  2. 2
    Defiance is more likely when you have a supporter. Teacher has support from 2 others: 30%.
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  3. 3
    Status of Location
    An important location increases obedience. The original Milgram experiment was carried out at Yale University, in a variation at a run-down office obedience was 42.5%.
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  4. 4
    If wearing a uniform (visible sign of authority), obedience increases. Milgram did not directly investigate this, but evidence can be found in the study by Bickman (see below).
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Other Studies

It is worthwhile to at least investigate the outcome of the following, so you can refer to it as support (or the reverse) in a piece of written work.

Study Bickman (1974) New York Hofling (1966) Nurses
Aim To see if uniform influences authority and obedience. Would nurses obey an oder that breaches hospital rules.
Method Three researchers were dressed as either: a civilian (coat and tie); milkman, or guard.

People were approached on the street and were asked one of three things. Here is an example of one: "Pick up this bag for me [points to bag]"

An unsuspecting nurse was told to give a patient a drug for a 'doctor' before he arrived.

The instruction broke many hospital guidelines including acting without a signed order from a doctor.

The nurse was stopped before giving the medication and as an extra precaution it was harmless anyway.

Results Much more obedience with the guard 21 out 22 nurses obeyed until they were stopped.
Conclusion Visible symbols of authority increase obedience. Heirarchies such as those in hospitals put pressure on us to obey.
Evaluation Supports the findings of Milgram (relating to status)

Has good ecological validity as it is in a real-life setting.

Questionable how representative the sample is since it only tests those who happened to be on this street at the time.

The nurses did not give consent to take part in this study.

It contradicts Milgram's findings as it shows very high conformity when an order is given over the telephone.

A very small sample was used.

Questions and Answers

Could you please tell me points that support Milgram's experiment ethically?

Bullet points would be fine. it's for school. thanks for your help. It's for a debate

Milgram's research was highly controversial but some have concluded that the entire experiment/study was completely unethical.

  • Milgram's theory went to great lengths to be sure participants did not suffer lasting harm.
  • Milgram did debrief his participants.
  • Milgram did reveal the actual nature of the experiment.
  • Milgram did (as soon as the experiment ended) arrange a reconciliation with the participant.

Referencing this Article

If you need to reference this article in your work, you can copy-paste the following depending on your required format:

APA (American Psychological Association)
Obedience and Milgram Experiment. (2017). In ScienceAid. Retrieved Sep 30, 2023, from https://scienceaid.net/psychology/social/obedience.html

MLA (Modern Language Association) "Obedience and Milgram Experiment." ScienceAid, scienceaid.net/psychology/social/obedience.html Accessed 30 Sep 2023.

Chicago / Turabian ScienceAid.net. "Obedience and Milgram Experiment." Accessed Sep 30, 2023. https://scienceaid.net/psychology/social/obedience.html.

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Categories : Social

Recent edits by: MaxScience, Taylor (ScienceAid Editor), Jamie (ScienceAid Editor)

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