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The experimenter (E) orders the teacher (T), the subject of the experiment, to give what the latter believes are painful electric shocks to a learner (L), who is actually an actor and confederate. The subject believes that for each wrong answer, the learner was receiving actual electric shocks, though in reality there were no such punishments. Being 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.[1]

The Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures was a series of social psychology experiments conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram, which measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience. Milgram first described his research in 1963 in an article published in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology,[1] and later discussed his findings in greater depth in his 1974 book, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View.[2]

The experiments began in July 1961, three months after the start of the trial of German Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Milgram devised his psychological study to answer the question: "Was it that Eichmann and his accomplices in the Holocaust had mutual intent, in at least with regard to the goals of the Holocaust?" In other words, "Was there a mutual sense of morality among those involved?" Milgram's testing suggested that it could have been that the millions of accomplices were merely following orders, despite violating their deepest moral beliefs.

The experiment

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Milgram Experiment advertisement

The subject was given the title teacher, and the confederate, learner. The participants drew slips of paper to 'determine' their roles. Unknown to them, both slips said "teacher", and the actor claimed to have the slip that read "learner", thus guaranteeing that the participant would always be the "teacher". At this point, the "teacher" and "learner" were separated into different rooms where they could communicate but not see each other. In one version of the experiment, the confederate was sure to mention to the participant that he had a heart condition.[1]

The "teacher" was given an 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 four possible answers. The learner would press a button to indicate his response. If the answer was incorrect, the teacher would administer a shock to the learner, with the voltage increasing in 15-volt increments for each wrong answer. If correct, the teacher would read the next word pair.[1]

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, all responses by the learner would cease.[1]

At this point, many people indicated their desire to stop the experiment and check on the learner. Some test subjects paused at 135 volts and began to question the purpose of the experiment. Most continued after being assured that they would not be held responsible. A few subjects began to laugh nervously or exhibit other signs of extreme stress once they heard the screams of pain coming from the learner.[1]

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]

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

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.[1]


Before conducting the experiment, Milgram polled fourteen Yale University senior-year psychology majors to predict the behavior of 100 hypothetical teachers. All of the poll respondents believed that only a very small fraction of teachers (the range was from zero to 3 out of 100, with an average of 1.2) would be prepared to inflict the maximum voltage. Milgram also informally polled his colleagues and found that they, too, believed very few subjects would progress beyond a very strong shock.[1]

In Milgram's first set of experiments, 65 percent (26 of 40)[1] of experiment participants administered the experiment's final massive 450-volt shock, though many were very uncomfortable doing so; at some point, every participant paused and questioned the experiment, some said they would refund the money they were paid for participating in the experiment.

Milgram summarized the experiment in his 1974 article, "The Perils of Obedience", writing:

The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous importance, 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.

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.[3]

The original Simulated Shock Generator and Event Recorder, or shock box, is located in the Archives of the History of American Psychology.

Later, Prof. Milgram and other psychologists performed variations of the experiment throughout the world, with similar results[4] although unlike the Yale experiment, resistance to the experimenter was reported anecdotally elsewhere.[5] Milgram later investigated the effect of the experiment's locale on obedience levels by holding an experiment in an unregistered, backstreet office in a bustling city, as opposed to at Yale, a respectable university. The level of obedience, "although somewhat reduced, was not significantly lower." What made more of a difference was the proximity of the "learner" and the experimenter. There were also variations tested involving groups.

Dr. Thomas Blass of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County 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, 61–66 percent, regardless of time or place.[6][7][verification needed]

There is a little-known coda to the Milgram 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 the health of the victim without requesting permission to leave, as per Milgram's notes and recollections, when Zimbardo asked him about that point.[8]

Milgram created a documentary film titled Obedience showing the experiment and its results. He also produced a series of five social psychology films, some of which dealt with his experiments.[9]


The Milgram Shock Experiment raised questions about the research ethics of scientific experimentation because of the extreme emotional stress and inflicted insight suffered by the participants. In Milgram's defense, 84 percent of former participants surveyed later said they were "glad" or "very glad" to have participated, 15 percent chose neutral responses (92% of all former participants responding).[10] Many later wrote expressing thanks. Milgram repeatedly received offers of assistance and requests to join his staff from former participants. Six years later (at the height of the Vietnam War), one of the participants in the experiment sent correspondence to Milgram, explaining why he was glad to have participated despite the stress:

While I was a subject 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… [11][12]

The experiments provoked emotional criticism more about the experiment's implications than with experimental ethics. In the journal Jewish Currents, Joseph Dimow, a participant in the 1961 experiment at Yale University, wrote about his early withdrawal as a "teacher," suspicious "that the whole experiment was designed to see if ordinary Americans would obey immoral orders, as many Germans had done during the Nazi period."[13] Indeed, that was one of the explicitly-stated goals of the experiments. In the Preface (p. xii) to his book, Obedience to Authority, Milgram wrote: "The question arises as to whether there is any connection between what we have studied in the laboratory and the forms of obedience we so deplored in the Nazi epoch."


Professor Milgram elaborated two theories explaining his results:

  • The first is the theory of conformism, based on Solomon Asch conformity experiments, describing the fundamental relationship between the group of reference and the individual person. A subject who has neither ability nor expertise to make decisions, especially in a crisis, will leave decision making to the group and its hierarchy. The group is the person's behavioral model.
  • The second is the agentic state theory, wherein, per Milgram, "the essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person's wishes, and he therefore no longer sees himself as responsible for his actions. Once this critical shift of viewpoint has occurred in the person, all of the essential features of obedience follow".[14]

Alternative interpretations

In his book Irrational Exuberance, Yale Finance Professor Robert Shiller argues that other factors might be partially able to explain the Milgram Experiments:

"[People] have learned that when experts tell them something is all right, it probably is, even if it does not seem so. (In fact, it is worth noting that in this case the experimenter was indeed correct: it was all right to continue giving the 'shocks' — even though most of the subjects did not suspect the reason.)"[15]

Milgram himself provides some anecdotal evidence to support this position. In his book, he quotes an exchange between a subject (Mr. Rensaleer) and the experimenter. The subject had just stopped at 255 V, and the experimenter tried to prod him on by saying: "There is no permanent tissue damage." Mr. Rensaleer answers:

"Yes, but I know what shocks do to you. I’m an electrical engineer, and I have had shocks ... and you get real shook up by them — especially if you know the next one is coming. I’m sorry."[16][17]

In a recent experiment using a computer simulation in place of the learner receiving electrical shocks, the participants administering the shocks were aware that the learner was unreal, but still showed the same results.[18]

Replications and variations

Summary of variation results

Percentage of people who went all the way to 450V x3 situation notes refs
92.5% Shock administered by a separate "subject". Teacher only administers test.
92% Standard. the Netherlands.
90% First see another teacher go all the way.
85% Standard. Munich.
70% Participant is bystander, not teacher.
65% Teacher can see learner through silvered glass, but cannot hear them.
64% Standard. Yale. Female subjects.
63% Standard. Yale public.
60% Standard. Yale undergrads. 100% through 135V; 80% through 285V; 70% through 315; 60% to 450Vx3.
50% Standard. UK.
48% Experiment takes place in off-campus run-down office, not on-campus lab
40% Standard. Australia.
40% Teacher and learner in same room
30% Teacher has to press learner's hand to shock plate
22% Experimenter in separate room from teacher, instructions given via phone.
20% Experimenter is non-professor
10% Two other 'teachers' rebel. 90% of disobedience happens together w/ others' rebellion.
5% Teacher told they are free to select any shock level for each response. Avg shock used, <60V. 7.5% stayed under 15V; 95% under 150V; 5% >325V.
3% Learner demands to be shocked
<3% Authority not present. Ordinary person gives orders.
0% Two experimenters present. They disagree about whether to continue the shocks.

Milgram's variations

In Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (1974), Milgram describes 19 variations of his experiment, some of which had not been previously reported.

Several experiments varied the immediacy of the teacher and learner. Generally, when the victim's physical immediacy was increased, the participant's compliance decreased. The participant's compliance also decreased when the authority's physical immediacy decreased (Experiments 1–4). For example, in Experiment 2, where participants received telephonic instructions from the experimenter, compliance decreased to 21 percent. Interestingly, some participants deceived the experimenter by pretending to continue the experiment. In the variation where the "learner's" physical immediacy was closest, where participants had to physically hold the "learner's" arm onto a shock plate, compliance decreased. Under that condition, 30 percent of participants completed the experiment.

In Experiment 8, women were the participants; previously, all participants had been men. Obedience did not significantly differ, though the women communicated experiencing higher levels of stress.

Experiment 10 took place in a modest office in Bridgeport, Connecticut, purporting to be the commercial entity "Research Associates of Bridgeport" without apparent connection to Yale University, to eliminate the university's prestige as a possible factor influencing the participants' behavior. In those conditions, obedience dropped to 47.5 percent, though the difference was not statistically significant.

Milgram also combined the effect of authority with that of conformity. In those experiments, the participant was joined by one or two additional "teachers" (also actors, like the "learner"). The behavior of the participants' peers strongly affected the results. In Experiment 17, when two additional teachers refused to comply, only 4 of 40 participants continued in the experiment. In Experiment 18, the participant performed a subsidiary task (reading the questions via microphone or recording the learner's answers) with another "teacher" who complied fully. In that variation, 37 of 40 continued with the experiment.[19]


In 2002 the British artist Rod Dickinson created The Milgram Re-enactment, an exact reconstruction of parts of the original experiment, including the rooms used, lighting and uniforms. An audience watched the four-hour performance through one-way glass windows.[20][21] A video of this performance was first shown at the CCA Gallery in Glasgow in 2002.

A partial replication of the Milgram experiment was conducted by British psychological illusionist Derren Brown and broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK in The Heist (2006).[22]

Another partial replication of the Milgram experiment was conducted by Jerry M. Burger in 2006 and broadcast on the Primetime series Basic Instincts. Burger noted that, "current standards for the ethical treatment of participants clearly place Milgram’s studies out of bounds." In 2009 Burger was able to receive approval from the institutional review board by modifying several of the experimental protocols.[23] Burger found obedience rates virtually identical to what Milgram found in 1961-1962, even while meeting current ethical regulations of informing participants. In addition, half the replication participants were female, and their rate of obedience was virtually identical to that of the male participants. Burger also included a condition in which participants first saw another participant refuse to continue. However, participants in this condition obeyed at the same rate as participants in the base condition.[24]

The experiment was again repeated as part of the BBC documentary How Violent Are You?[25] first shown in May 2009 as part of the long running Horizon series. Of the 12 participants, only 3 refused to continue to the end of the experiment.

A French documentary filmcrew recreated the Milgram experiment in March 2010, recasting the scenario as gameshow The Game of Death (Template:Lang-fr). Only 16 of 80 "contestants" (teachers) chose to walk out instead of continuing the tests.[26][27]

The experiment was performed on the April 25th, 2010 episode of Dateline NBC.

Due to increasingly widespread knowledge of the experiment, recent replications of Milgram's procedure had to ensure that the participants were not previously aware of it.

Other variations

Charles Sheridan and Richard King hypothesized that some of Milgram's subjects may have suspected that the victim was faking, so they repeated the experiment with a real victim: a puppy who was given real electric shocks. They found that 20 out of the 26 participants complied to the end. The six that had refused to comply were all male (54% of males were obedient[28]); all 13 of the women obeyed to the end, although many were highly disturbed and some openly wept.[29]

Similar real-life examples

From April 1995 until June 30, 2004, there was a series of hoaxes, known as the strip search prank call scam, upon fast food workers in popular fast food chains in America in which a phone caller, claiming to be a police officer, persuaded authority figures to strip and sexually abuse workers. The perpetrator achieved a high level of success in persuading workers to perform acts which they would not have done under normal circumstances.[30] (The chief suspect, David R. Stewart, was found not guilty in the only case that has gone to trial so far.[31])

Several prank calls have been made to hotel rooms, in which the caller instructs the occupant to commit increasingly severe acts of vandalism. In one particular case, alleged by The Smoking Gun to be connected to Pranknet, a hotel employee and customer set off the fire alarm, broke lobby windows, activated the sprinkler system and shut down the main power, causing a total of over $50,000 worth of damages.[32]

Media depictions


  • Obedience is a black-and-white film of the experiment, shot by Milgram himself. It is distributed by The Pennsylvania State University.[33] It is available on DVD in the UK from the BUFVC [1].
  • The Tenth Level was a 1975 CBS television film about the experiment, featuring William Shatner, Ossie Davis, and John Travolta.[34][35]
  • I as in Icarus is a 1979 French conspiracy thriller with Yves Montand as an attorney investigating the assassination of the President. The movie is inspired by the Kennedy assassination and the subsequent Warren Commission investigation. Digging into the psychology of the Lee Harvey Oswald type character, the attorney finds out the "decoy shooter" participated in the Milgram experiment. The ongoing experiment is presented to the unsuspecting attorney.
  • Atrocity is a 2005 film re-enactment of the Milgram Experiment.[36]
  • The Human Behavior Experiments is a 2006 documentary by Alex Gibney about major experiments in social psychology, shown along with modern incidents highlighting the principles discussed. Along with Stanley Milgram's study in obedience, the documentary shows the 'diffusion of responsibility' study of John Darley and Bibb Latané and the Stanford Prison Experiment of Philip Zimbardo.
  • Chip Kidd's 2008 novel The Learners is about the Milgram experiment and features Stanley Milgram as a character.
  • The Milgram Experiment is a 2009 film by the Brothers Gibbs which chronicles the story of Stanley Milgram's experiments.
  • The conflict between obedience to authority and doing what is right is a theme of "Love, Honor, Obey", the September 13, 2009, episode of the ABC TV drama Defying Gravity, in which the crew's obedience to authority is tested in flashback scenes showing their training, and in which the chain of command is threatened when a crisis develops on the Antares. The Milgram Experiment is mentioned during the flashback scenes, in which crew candidates are made to give each other electrical shocks.
  • An episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit titled "Authority" had a suspect, played by Robin Williams, using the Milgram experiment on Stabler as he held Benson hostage to see how he would respond. The suspect also prank-called a fast food restaurant mimicking the actual crime that took place in similar fashion. When making the prank call, the suspect identified himself as "Detective Milgram".
  • The Law & Order: Criminal Intent episode titled "Abel And Willing" also re-enacted a form of this experiment. Footage from the original experiment was shown on TV monitors during the procedure. In the re-enactment, Abel Hazard, played by Dallas Roberts, is shown abducting several couples over the course of many years and forcing one partner to choose: either shoot the other, or shoot themselves.
  • The track "We Do What We're Told (Milgram's 37)" on Peter Gabriel's album So is a reference to Milgram's Experiment 18, in which 37 of 40 people were prepared to administer the highest level of shock.
  • The Dar Williams song "Buzzer" is about the experiment. "I'm feeling sorry for this guy that I pressed to shock/ He gets the answers wrong I have to up the watts/ And he begged me to stop but they told me to go/ I pressed the buzzer."
  • Episode 114 (Aired March 13, 2009) of the Howie Mandell show Howie Do It repeated the experiment with a single pair of subjects using the premise of a Japanese game show.
  • An episode of Malcolm in the Middle is themed after the Milgram experiment in which a high school teacher orders Malcolm to create a humiliating video of his brother Reese.
  • An episode of Derren Brown Special named "The Heist", repeated the Milgram experiment to test whether the participants will take part in a staged heist afterwards.
  • The song Caeser by I Blame Coco has the line "Now it's Milgram device all over again".

In legend

In the spirit of myth surrounding many pieces of Yale history, students there sometimes perpetuated the urban legend that the room used for the Milgram experiment was still intact. But in reality, the experiment took place in the basement of what later became the conjoined Linsly-Chittenden Hall, a large classroom building on Old Campus, and as of early June 2010, the basement is still mostly occupied by storage and maintenance space.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 1.9 Milgram, Stanley (1963). "Behavioral Study of Obedience". Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 67: 371–378. doi:10.1037/h0040525. PMID 14049516. Full-text PDF.
  2. Milgram, Stanley. (1974), Obedience to Authority; An Experimental View. Harpercollins (ISBN 0-06-131983-X).
  3. Milgram, Stanley. (1974), "The Perils of Obedience." Harper's Magazine. Abridged and adapted from Obedience to Authority.
  4. Milgram(1974)
  5. Melbourne(1972) A version of the experiment was conducted in the Psychology Department of La Trobe University by Dr Robert Montgomery. One 19-year old female student subject (KG), upon having the experiment explained to her, objected to participating. When asked to reconsider she swore at the experimenter and left the laboratory, despite believing that she had "failed" the project
  6. Blass, Thomas. "The Milgram paradigm after 35 years: Some things we now know about obedience to authority," Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 1999, vol. 29 no. 5, pp. 955-978.
  7. Blass, Thomas. (2002), "The Man Who Shocked the World,"Psychology Today, 35:(2), Mar/Apr 2002.
  8. Discovering Psychology with Philip Zimbardo Ph.D. Updated Edition, "Power of the Situation,", reference starts at 10min 59 seconds into video.
  9. Milgram films. Accessed 4 October 2006.
  10. See Milgram (1974), p. 195
  11. Toni Raiten-D'Antonio (2010). Ugly As Sin: The Truth About How We Look and Finding Freedom from Self-Hatred. HCI. ISBN 9780757314650.
  12. Stanley Milgram (1974). Obedience to authority: an experimental view. Harper & Row. p. 200. ISBN 9780060129385.
  13. Dimow, Joseph. "Resisting Authority: A Personal Account of the Milgram Obedience Experiments", Jewish Currents, January 2004.
  14. The Milgram Experiment | A lesson in depravity, the power of authority, and peer pressure
  15. Shiller, Robert. (2005) Irrational Exuberance: Second Edition. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. p 158
  16. Milgram, 1974a, p. 51
  17. Blass, Thomas (1999)The Milgram Paradigm After 35 Years: Some Things We Now Know About Obedience to Authority Journal of Applied Social Psychology. (Volume 29 Issue 5 pages 955-978) p. 960
  18. Slater M, Antley A, Davison A, et al. (2006). "A virtual reprise of the Stanley Milgram obedience experiments". PLoS ONE 1: e39. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000039. PMC 1762398. PMID 17183667.
  19. Milgram, old answers. Accessed 4 October 2006.[dead link]
  20. History Will Repeat Itself: Strategies of Re-enactment in Contemporary (Media) Art and Performance, ed. Inke Arns, Gabriele Horn, Frankfurt: Verlag, 2007
  21. "The Milgram Re-enactment". Retrieved 2008-06-10.
  22. "The Milgram Experiment on YouTube". Retrieved 2008-12-21.
  23. Burger, Jerry M. (2008). "Replicating Milgram: Would People Still Obey Today?". American Psychologist
  24. "The Science of Evil". Retrieved 2007-01-04.
  25. "BBC Two Programmes — How Violent are you?". Retrieved 2009-07-09."Horizon — How Violent Are You (torrent)".
  26. "Fake TV Game Show 'Tortures' Man, Shocks France". Retrieved 2010-10-19.
  27. "Fake torture TV 'game show' reveals willingness to obey". 2010-03-17. Archived from the original on 2010-03-23. Retrieved 2010-03-18.
  28. Blass, Thomas (1999)The Milgram Paradigm After 35 Years: Some Things We Now Know About Obedience to Authority' Journal of Applied Social Psychology. (Volume 29 Issue 5 pages 955-978) p. 968
  29. Sheridan, C.L. and King, K.G. (1972) Obedience to authority with an authentic victim, Proceedings of the 80th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association 7: 165-6.
  30. Wolfson, Andrew. A hoax most cruel. The Courier-Journal. October 9, 2005.
  31. Acquittal in hoax call that led to sex assault
  32. Police Incident Report
  33. WPSU TV/FM — Penn State Public Broadcasting
  34. Thomas Blass (March/April 2002). "The Man who Shocked the World". Psychology Today.
  35. The Tenth Level at the Internet Movie Database. Accessed 4 October 2006.
  36. "Atrocity.". Archived from the original on 2007-04-27. Retrieved 2007-03-20.


External links

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