Copyright © 2007-2017 Russ Dewey
As a student, Stanley Milgram learned about Asch's conformity experiments and wondered if there might be a way to use them to study obedience to authority. Milgram later said, in an interview with Carol Tavris (Milgram, 1992):
How did Asch's experiment inspire Stanley Milgram?
I was trying to think of a way to make Asch's conformity experiment more humanly significant. I was dissatisfied that the test of conformity was judgments about lines.
I wondered whether groups could pressure a person into performing an act whose human import was more readily apparent, perhaps behaving aggressively toward another person, say by administering increasingly severe shocks to him. (p.xxxi)
Milgram went on to test this idea, and his experiment became famous. One reason it became famous is that Milgram released an educational film about the experiment called Obedience (1965). It showed scenes from the actual experiment. Decades after the experiment, this video remained one of the most-requested items from university audio/visual centers.
Milgram's experiment began with a meeting between two subjects and an experimenter (an actor wearing a lab coat, playing the role of an experimenter). One of the subjects was actually a confederate of the researchers, but the other subject did not know this.
The "experimenter" in the lab coat explained that the research was designed to study "the effect of punishment on memory." One subject was to act as a teacher; the other was to act as a learner.
The two subjects drew slips of paper to see who would be the teacher or the learner. Actually, both slips of paper said teacher so the naïve subject (the one who was not a confederate) was always chosen as the teacher. The other subject, a friendly-looking middle-aged man, said that his slip said learner.
What was the sequence of events in Milgram's experiment?
Now (the lab-coated experimenter explained) the learner would be placed in another room, and the teacher would read a list of word pairs into a microphone. The learner would listen through a loudspeaker in the other room.
Whenever the learner remembered a word pair correctly, the teacher would proceed to the next word pair. Whenever the learner made a mistake, the teacher would give him an electric shock. The shocks would go up in intensity with each error.
Milgram's "shock generator"
The researcher gestured toward a scary-looking shock generator on the table. It was lined with 30 toggle switches, each labeled with a voltage going from 10 volts to 450 volts. The switches at the high end, near 450 volts, were labeled Extreme Shock, Danger: Severe Shock, and (at the very end) XXX.
The naïve subject (the teacher) was given a sample 45-volt shock to convince him of the authenticity of the apparatus. It hurt, so the naïve participant (serving as teacher) had every reason to believe there were actual, painful shocks being delivered to the learner.
The learner was led to another room and, while the teacher watched, the learner was strapped into a chair resembling an electric chair. The experimenter applied electrode paste to the learner's arms "to assure a good electrical contact" and strapped the learner's arms to the chair so the learner apparently could not escape from the shocks.
The learner (who had previously memorized his part) said, "I think you should know that I had a checkup at the VA Hospital the other day, and they think I have a heart condition. Will these electric shocks be dangerous?" The experimenter, also following a pre-arranged script, responded, "No, while they may be painful, they are not dangerous."
The teacher and experimenter then returned to the original room. The learner was therefore out of sight of the teacher. As soon as the teacher was out of sight, the "learner" released himself and put a tape-recorder on the desk.
From that point on, the tape recorder was used to simulate the learner's voice, insuring that each teacher who participated in the experiment would hear the same words and sounds.
Now the fake experiment began. The teacher read the list, and the learner (in the next room) started by making correct replies. However, soon the learner was missing about 75% of the words.
After each mistake the teacher was supposed to call out the correct answer, state the level of voltage, and administer a shock. For example, the teacher might say, "Wrong, the correct answer is BLUE; 10 volts." Then the teacher would press the shock button, which was accompanied by a strong, electrical-sounding BZZZT sound.
Following the instructions given by the lab-coated researcher, the teacher had to move up to the next higher voltage level following each error. "Wrong, the correct answer is BICYCLE. 20 volts." (Bzzt!) Soon the learner in the next room (actually a tape recorder) was yelping with pain after each shock.
What did Milgram call "prods" and when were they used?
At this point, the teachers typically turned to the lab-coated person who was pretending to be the experimenter and asked if they should continue. The experimenter urged the teacher to continue with one of four prods:
1. "Continue please." or "Go on."
2. "The experiment requires that you continue."
3. "It is absolutely essential that you continue."
4. "You have no choice."
Given one or more prods, about two-
The two-thirds of subjects who continued soon, at 150 volts, began to hear the learner yelling, "Get me out of here! I refuse to go on with the experiment! Get me out of here! My heart is starting to act up!"
This caused most of the teachers to turn to the experimenter with a questioning look, saying, "He's yelling in there" or "I think he's hurt." But the experimenter just repeated the prods.
What happened after the learner pounded on the wall?
When the shock that was supposedly 300 volts was administered, the learner pounded on the wall of his room. At 330 volts the learner (actually the tape recording) let out a great scream and fell silent.
From then on, the learner was silent. He could have been dead, for all the teacher knew.
But the experimenter urged the teacher to continue, saying that silence should be treated as a wrong answer. The teacher was asked to continue administering shocks right up to 450 volts, the XXX setting.
What reactions did the teachers have?
Milgram's subjects (the teachers) showed great distress as they went up toward the higher voltage levels and reached the 150 volt point, where the learner in the next room began to complain. But most continued to obey. The following transcript, with most of the prods left out, is typical:
150 volts delivered You want me to keep going?
165 volts delivered That guy is hollering in there. There's a lot of these [switches] here. He's liable to have a heart condition. You want me to go on?
180 volts delivered He can't stand it! I'm not going to kill that man in there! You hear him hollering? He's hollering. He can't stand it. What if something happens to him?...
I'm not going to get that man sick in there. He's in there hollering. Too many left here. Geez, if he gets them wrong... There's too many of them left. I mean who is going to take responsibility if anything happens to that gentleman? (The experimenter says he will take responsibility.) All right.
195 volts delivered You see he's hollering. Hear that. Gee, I don't know. (The experimenter says, "The experiment requires that you continue.") I know it does, sir, but I mean–huh–he don't know what he's in for. He's up to 195 volts.
210 volts delivered
225 volts delivered
240 volts delivered Aw now. You mean I've got to keep going up with the scale? No sir. I'm not going to kill that man! I'm not going to give him 450 volts.
(The experimenter says, "The experiment requires that you continue.") I know it does, but the man is hollering in there, sir...
255 volts delivered... [and this subject continued right up to 450 volts, the XXX setting].
What did psychiatrists predict, before Milgram started the research? What happened instead?
Before conducting the research, Milgram asked a group of psychiatrists how far they thought the average subject would go. The psychiatrists thought most subjects would quit when the learner started protesting, at the 150 volt level.
Milgram himself expected the subjects to stop quickly. Then he intended to replicate the experiment in Germany, where (given American views of Germany after WW II and the holocaust) he expected subjects to go farther up the scale.
As it turned out, Milgram never went to Germany. The American subjects in his experiment went much further than he expected.
65% of the subjects went all the way up to the highest setting. They threw every switch, including the one marked "XXX" at which point (they might think) they were administering jolts to a corpse.
In follow-up studies, Milgram manipulated variables that might influence the obedience phenomenon. Closeness or proximity between experimenter and subject was one variable manipulated.
For example, in one condition, the learner was seated in the same room as the teacher. At the 150-volt level, the learner refused to continue with the experiment and demanded to be set free.
The teacher was instructed to hold the learner's hand and force it onto the shock plate. Less than 20% of the teachers were willing to do that.
What was the effect of proximity to the "learner"? Authority of the institution?
Milgram also manipulated the authority of the institution. Most of the research was done at Yale University.
When the experiments were conducted in a shabby second-story office in downtown Bridgeport, obedience levels fell somewhat, from 65% to 48%. However, even in a little office apparently run by Research Associates of Bridgeport, almost half the subjects went all the way to the highest setting on the shock generator.
One powerful variable Milgram manipulated was presence of dissenters. In this version, subjects ran in groups of three at a time. Two subjects were confederates and one was a naïve subject.
When the shock apparatus reached 150 volts, one of the confederates stood up, announced he could not go on, and took a seat at the other end of the room. At the 210-volt level, the second confederate did the same thing.
With both the confederates now refusing to go on and sitting on the other side of the room, the experimenter made strong efforts to get the third subject (the naïve subject) to continue alone. About 9 out of 10 people refused to obey under these circumstances.
An encouraging finding from both the Asch research and the Milgram research is that dissent is powerful. When a few brave people speak out against obedience, it gives other people courage to dissent.
In what respect was presence of a dissenter powerful?
No wonder dictators are reluctant to tolerate political dissent. They understand that dissenters in a group can "break the spell" so others feel free to disobey as well.
Milgram's research was controversial, in part because of the stress it put on his subjects. Many psychologists raised the issue of research ethics in connection with Milgram's research, arguing that it was not acceptable to put subjects through this kind of experience.
Milgram (1963) himself made it sound as if participation in the experiment could be traumatic. He quoted a person who observed his experiment and offered this description:
I observed a mature and initially poised businessman enter the laboratory smiling and confident. Within 20 minutes he was reduced to a twitching, stuttering wreck who was rapidly approaching a point of nervous collapse.
He constantly pulled on his earlobe and twisted his hands. At one point he pushed his fist into his forehead and muttered, "Oh, God, let's stop it." And yet he continued to respond to every word of the experimenter and obeyed to the end.
What is an IRB and what does it do?
Milgram's experiment stimulated discussion about the need to protect the rights of research subjects. In the 1970s and 1980s, universities and other research institutions put safeguards in place to insure participants would not face stressful or harmful conditions during research.
Proposals for research are now submitted to institutional review boards (IRBs) before research is ever conducted, to make sure no harmful manipulations are used. Such boards do not approve research that is potentially distressing to subjects. Milgram's research could not be repeated today.
To Milgram's credit, he took pains to make sure his subjects suffered no lasting harm. Milgram did debrief his subjects. In other words, he revealed the true nature of the experiment.
He also arranged a reconciliation with the learner as soon as the experiment was over. He asked the confederate who played the role to come into the room and shake hands with the teacher before the teacher left.
Milgram also asked the subjects after debriefing whether they were very glad, glad, neither sorry nor glad, sorry, or very sorry to have participated. He found less than 2% in any group said they were "sorry" or "very sorry." (Milgram, 1964)
In fact, the subjects who had been most obedient, going all the way to the top of the shock scale, were most likely to say they were "very glad" to have participated in the experiment. Perhaps they were very glad to find out they had not really killed a man.
What did Milgram say he found out when he debriefed subjects?
Milgram also had a psychiatrist interview his subjects a year after the experiment to determine whether they had suffered adverse reactions. No long-term distress was found.
21st Century critiques of Milgram's work seem to focus on three aspects of the research.
(1) Milgrim's transcripts of his research sessions were edited. We know this because he left behind audiotape archives. He omitted details that some present-day analysts find important. For example, Milgram might omit the word "Well,..." at the beginning a sentence, from a subject who dissented.
A 21st Century critic (Gibson, 2016) said the omission of that word "Well..." (and many similar changes in the transcripts) was very significant, because it was a rhetorical device signaling disagreement with what the experimenter had just said.
It showed the subject was arguing back with the experimenter and not passively obeying. Gibson's implication is that Milgram smoothed over his transcripts to make his theoretical position (that subjects were passively obedient) more plausible (Gibson, 2016).
(2) Milgram represented his research as a reaction to the Nazi holocaust. It was based partly on the widely publicized Eichmann trials of 1961, in which Eichmann's unsuccessful defense was that he was merely "following orders."
Milgram framed his work as illustrating that pattern. Subjects would "just follow orders" and deflect guilt or blame to the person giving the orders.
Not so fast, say critics 50 years later. Nazi guards reported no signs of distress similar to Milgram's studies. Some of them protested they were idealists. Their motivation was engaged followership, not obedience.
In other words, they agreed with Hitler's ideas about racial purity for the German people. They thought it was desirable to kill Jews, therefore they felt no conflict in carrying out executions, because they agreed with the goals.
What is the "engaged followership" idea?
(3) Milgram implied that the obedient subjects were the bad guys, similar to Nazi prison guards. They followed orders to torture a fellow experimental subject despite cries of pain.
21st Century critics portray Milgram and his associates as the bad guys. They were the ones like the Nazis, because they held a belief system (about the value of their research) that rationalized putting hundreds of trusting experimental subjects through traumatic and stressful situations, despite verbal objections.
Having made these new criticisms, several writers in the 2010s said it was no longer appropriate to include the obedience research in teaching materials about the Holocaust. Instead, attention should be paid to the phenomenon of engaged followership. People adopt an ideology that allows them to torture other people without guilt, as did Milgram and his fellow experimenters.
To support their revised view of Milgram, writers cite quotations from Eichmann ("I was part of the thought process. I was an idealist"). Similar sentiments came from an American prison guard, Private Lynndie England, court-martialed because of videos showing torture at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. England said, "We don't feel like we were doing things that we weren't supposed to do." (Nicholson, 2015)
These people were not torturing others because they handed off responsibility or blame to a superior. They did not express distress about engaging in torture.
Were Nazi guards or American guards conducting torture anguished about it?
They thought it was expected and OK. They agreed with the value system behind the torture and thought torture was justified by it. The American prison guards were caught because they took pictures of their torture and shared it with friends.
Nicholson argued that Milgram's research program was similar in justifying large-scale torture. It was not a small enterprise; it was cruelty on an industrial scale, ultimately including more than 780 participants in dozens of variations on the experiment.
Milgram knew the subjects experienced severe distress. Milgram himself said it "reached extremes rarely seen in sociopsychological laboratory studies (Milgram, 1963). Milgram also said the reactions of his subjects included "full-blown, uncontrollable seizures" in 15 people (Milgram, 1965).
This, Nicholson argues, is the real link to the Holocaust. Real-life participants in the Holocaust, like Milgram and his researchers, "knew exactly what they were doing and many were willing participants."
"How did it become "normal" and "ok" for a small group of scientists to subject innocent American citizens as a matter of routine to such extraordinary levels of abuse?" (Nicholson, 2015). The proposed answer is that Milgram created "engaged followership" in both his research associates and the experimental subjects.
What was the "engaged followership" analysis of Milgram's research?
Perhaps more surprisingly, the participants in the experiments were themselves recruited into engaged followership. "Once Milgram explained the nobility of the enterprise (in terms of progressing human understanding), participants became reconciled to, and even enthusiastic about, the role they had played" (Haslam et al, 2015).
In effect, Milgram helped his subjects re-frame what had just happened to them, as in cognitive behavior therapy for stress-reduction. When he debriefed his subjects, he led them to re-interpret what they had just done, administering torture, as a virtuous contribution to an important scientific experiment.
Like the people who witnessed horrible woodworking accidents but had their stress reduced by being told the videos were faked, Milgram's subjects had their post-traumatic stress reduced by being assured the shocks were fake. They were also shown that the learner was unharmed, reconciled with the learner, and assured that science had been served by their participation in the research.
As a result, Milgram received many letters from participants in his research, expressing thanks and saying they felt they had benefited from participating. Haslam, Reicher, and Birney (2016) say this happened because Milgram recruited subjects into his "ingroup cause."
If you accept this revised view, the real power of Milgram's research is not to explain how people can deflect responsibility to superiors, as Milgram himself assumed. The real take-home lesson is that "leaders, followers, and the institutions in which they are enmeshed can create worlds in which acts of cruelty against outgroups come to be seen as virtuous rather than vicious, and in which those who perpetrate them understand themselves to be heroes rather than villains." (Haslam, Reicher, and Birney, 2016).
Gibson, S. (2016) Developing psychology's archival sensibilities: Re-visiting Milgram's 'obedience' experiments. Retrieved from: https://ray.yorksj.ac.uk/
Haslam, S. A., Reicher, S. D., & Birney, M. E. (2016) Questioning authority: New perspectives on Milgram's 'obedience' research and its implications for intergroup relations. Current Opinion in Psychology, 11, 6-9.
Haslam, S. A., Reicher, S. D., Millard, K., & McDonald, R. (2015) Happy to have been of service: the Yale archive as a window into the engaged followership of participants in Milgram's 'obedience' experiments. British Journal of Social Psychology, 54, 55-83.
Milgram, S. (1963) Behavioral Study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-378. http://dx.doi.org/
Milgram, S. (1964) Issues in the study of obedience: A reply to Baumrind. American Psychologist, 19, 848-852. http://dx.doi.org/
Milgram, S. (1965). Some conditions of obedience and disobedience to authority. Human Relations, 18, 57-76.
Nicholson, I. (2015) The normalization of torment: Producing and managing anguish in Milgram's 'Obedience' laboratory. Theory and Psychology, 25, 639-656.
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Copyright © 2007-2017 Russ Dewey