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The experimenter (E) persuades the participant (S) to give what the participant believes are painful electric shocks to another participant (A), who is actually an actor. Many participants continued to give shocks despite pleas for mercy from the actor.

The Milgram experiment (Obedience to Authority Study) was a famous scientific experiment of social psychology. The experiment was first described by Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University in an article titled Behavioral Study of Obedience published in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology in 1963, and later discussed at book length in his 1974 Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. It was intended to measure the willingness of a participant to obey an authority who instructs the participant to do something that may conflict with the participant's personal conscience.

The experiments began in July 1961, a year after the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Milgram devised the experiment to answer the question "Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?" (Milgram, 1974)

Milgram summed up in the article "The Perils of Obedience" (Milgram 1974), writing:

"The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous import, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects' [participants'] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects' [participants'] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation."

Method of the experiment

For the experiment, subjects were recruited by newspaper ads and direct mail to participate in a study at Yale. The experiments themselves took place in two rooms in the basement of Linsly-Chittenden Hall on the university's Old Campus. The experiment was advertised as taking one hour, for which those responding would be paid $4.50. Participants were men between the ages of 20 and 50, coming from all educational backgrounds, ranging from an elementary school dropout to participants with doctoral degrees.

The participant and a confederate of the experimenter, who would be an actor pretending to be another participant, were told by the experimenter that they would be participating in an experiment to test the effects of punishment on learning behavior.

A slip of paper was given to the participant and another to the confederate. The participant was led to believe that one of the slips said "learner" and the other said "teacher," and that the participants had been given the slips randomly. In fact, both slips said "teacher," but the actor claimed to have the slip that read "learner," thus guaranteeing that the participant was always the "teacher." At this point, the "teacher" and "learner" were separated into different rooms where they could communicate but not see each other. The confederate was sure to mention that he had a heart condition.

The "teacher" was given a 45-volt electric shock from the electro-shock generator as a sample of the shock that the "learner" would supposedly receive during the experiment. The "teacher" was then given a list of word pairs which he was to teach the learner. The teacher began by reading the list of word pairs to the learner. The teacher would then read the first word of each pair and read 4 possible answers. The learner would press a button to indicate his response. If the answer was incorrect, the learner would receive a shock, with the voltage increasing by 15 volts with each wrong answer. If correct, the teacher read the next word pair. The subjects believed that for each wrong answer, the learner was receiving actual shocks. In reality, there were no shocks. After the confederate was separated from the subject, the confederate set up a tape recorder integrated with the electro-shock generator, which played pre-recorded sounds for each shock level. After a number of voltage level increases, the actor started to bang on the wall that separated him from the subject. After several times banging on the wall and complaining about his heart condition, the learner gave no further response to the questions and made no further complaints.

At this point many people indicated their desire to stop the experiment and check on the learner. Many test subjects paused at 135 volts and began to question the purpose of the experiment. Some continued after being assured that they would not be held responsible. Some subjects began to laugh nervously once they heard the screams of pain coming from the learner.

If at any time the subject indicated his desire to halt the experiment, he was given a succession of verbal prods by the experimenter, in this order:

  1. Please continue.
  2. The experiment requires you to continue, please go on.
  3. It is essential that you continue.
  4. You have no choice, you must continue.

If the subject still wished to stop after all four successive verbal prods, the experiment was halted. Otherwise, it was halted after the subject had given the maximum 450-volt shock three times in succession.


Milgram created a documentary film showing the experiment and its results, titled "Obedience", legitimate copies of which are hard to find today. He then produced a series of five other films on social psychology with Harry From, some of which touched on his experiments [1]. They may all be obtained from Penn State Media Services.

Before the experiment was conducted Milgram polled fellow psychologists as to what the results would be. They unanimously believed that only a few sadists would be prepared to give the maximum voltage.

In Milgram's first set of experiments, 65 percent (27 out of 40) of experimental participants administered the experiment's final 450-volt shock, though many were quite uncomfortable in doing so; everyone paused at some point and questioned the experiment, some even saying they would return the cheque for the money they were paid. No participant steadfastly refused to give further shocks before the 300-volt level. Variants of the experiment were later performed by Milgram himself and other psychologists around the world with similar results. Apart from confirming the original results the variations have tested variables in the experimental setup.

[2] Dr. Thomas Blass of the University of Maryland Baltimore County (who is also the author of a biography of Milgram, called The Man who Shocked the World) performed a meta-analysis on the results of repeated performances of the experiment. He found that the percentage of participants who are prepared to inflict fatal voltages remains remarkably constant, between 61% and 66%, regardless of time or location (a popular account of Blass' results was published in Psychology Today, March/April 2002). The full results were published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology (Blass, 1999).

There is a little-known coda to the experiment, reported by Philip Zimbardo. None of the participants who refused to administer the final shocks insisted that the experiment itself be terminated, nor left the room to check that the victim was well without asking for permission to leave, according to Milgram's notes and recollections when he was asked on this point by Zimbardo. However some of the particepants did seem to argue with the authority figure the out come shows that participants adminitered shocks beyond maximum voltage of 450 volts.


The experiment raised questions about the ethics of scientific experimentation itself because of the extreme emotional stress suffered by the participants (even though it could be said that this stress was brought on by their own free actions). Most modern scientists would consider the experiment unethical today, though it resulted in valuable insights into human psychology.

In Milgram's defense, 84 percent of former participants surveyed later said they were "glad" or "very glad" to have participated and 15 percent chose neutral (92% of all former participants responding). Many later wrote expressing thanks. Milgram repeatedly received offers of assistance and requests to join his staff from former participants.

Six years later (during the height of the Vietnam War), one of the participants in the experiment sent correspondence to Milgram, explaining why they were "glad" to have been involved despite the apparent levels of stress:

"While I was a subject [participant] in 1964, though I believed that I was hurting someone, I was totally unaware of why I was doing so. Few people ever realize when they are acting according to their own beliefs and when they are meekly submitting to authority. ... To permit myself to be drafted with the understanding that I am submitting to authority's demand to do something very wrong would make me frightened of myself. ... I am fully prepared to go to jail if I am not granted Conscientious Objector status. Indeed, it is the only course I could take to be faithful to what I believe. My only hope is that members of my board act equally according to their conscience..."

However, not everyone went through the life-changing experience reported by some former participants. Participants were not fully debriefed by modern standards, and exit interviews appeared to indicate that many seemed to never fully understand the nature of the experiment.


Milgram describes 19 variations of the experiment that he conducted in Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. In general, he found that when the immediacy of the victim was increased, compliance decreased, and when immediacy of the authority increased, compliance increased (Experiments 1–4). For instance, in one variation where participants received instructions from the experimenter only by telephone (Experiment 2), compliance greatly decreased; interestingly, a number of participants deceived the experimenter by pretending to continue the experiment. In the variation where immediacy of the "learner" was closest, participants had to physically hold the learner's arm onto a shock plate, which decreased compliance. In this latter condition 30 percent still completed the experiment.

In Experiment 8, women were used as participants (all of Milgram's other experiments used only men). Obedience did not differ significantly, though they indicated experiencing higher levels of stress.

In one version (Experiment 10), Milgram rented a modest office in Bridgeport, Connecticut, purporting to be run by a commercial entity called "Research Associates of Bridgeport" with no apparent connection to Yale, in order to eliminate the prestige of the university as a possible factor influencing participants' behavior. The results of this experiment did not greatly differ from those conducted at the Yale campus.

Milgram also combined the power of authority with that of conformity. In these experiments, the participant was joined by one or two additional "teachers" (who were actually actors, like the "learner"). The behavior of the participants' apparent peers strongly affected results. When two additional teachers refused to comply (Experiment 17), only four participants of 40 continued the experiment. In another version (Experiment 18), the participant performed a subsidiary task with another "teacher" who complied fully. In this variation only three of 40 defied the experimenter. [1]

See also


  • Blass, Thomas. "The Milgram paradigm after 35 years: Some things we now know about obedience to authority", Journal of Applied Social Psychology[2], 1999, 25, pp. 955-978.
  • Blass, Thomas. (2002), "The Man Who Shocked the World", Psychology Today, 35:(2), Mar/Apr 2002.
  • Blass, Thomas. (2004), The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram. (ISBN 0738203998)Basic Books (2004)
  • Levine, Robert V. "Milgram's Progress"[3]. American Scientist.
    • Book review of "The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram". Thomas Blass. xxiv + 360 pp. Basic Books, 2004."
  • Milgram, Stanley. Official website [4]
  • Milgram, Stanley. (1963). "Behavioral Study of Obedience".[5] Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-378.
  • Milgram, Stanley. (1974), Obedience to Authority; An Experimental View (ISBN 006131983X). Harpercollins (1974)
  • Milgram, Stanley. (1974), "The Perils of Obedience" [6]. Harper's Magazine
    • Abridged and adapted from Obedience to Authority
  • Miller, Arthur G., (1986). "The obedience experiments : a case study of controversy in social science". New York : Praeger, 295 p.
  • Parker, Ian, "Obedience". Granta[7] Issue 71, Autumn 2000.
    • Includes an interview with one of Milgram's volunteers, and discusses modern interest in, and scepticism about, the experiment.
  • Wu, William, "Practical Psychology: Compliance: The Milgram Experiment" [8].


  • Obedience, Black-and-white film of the experiment, shot by Milgram. Distributed by The Pennsylvania State University Media Sales
  • The Milgram Reenactment, 2002. Colour, Exact reenactment of one condition of the obedience experiment. Created by conceptual UK artist Rod Dickinson

Further reading

  • Burger, J. M. (2009). Replicating Milgram: Would people still obey today? American Psychologist, 64, 1-11. Full text

External links

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