Psychologist Stanley Milgram Begins Obedience-to-Authority Experiments Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Social psychologist Stanley Milgram designed a controversial experiment in which one subject was ordered to give increasingly strong electric shocks to another. His goal was to see how long the subject administering the shocks would comply in the face of the recipient’s discomfort. He found a universally high degree of compliance. The experiment raised ethical questions because those persons administering shocks were not told the real purpose of the experiment.

Summary of Event

In July of 1961, psychologist Stanley Milgram began a series of about twenty social psychology experiments designed to test the way people comply with authority. Milgram wanted to know the number of “normal” people who would continue to inflict pain on another person when directed to do so by an authority figure. His interest in this question was stimulated, in part, by the atrocities committed during World World War II[World War 02];German atrocities War II by seemingly average German citizens who were following the orders of their leaders. [kw]Milgram Begins Obedience-to-Authority Experiments, Psychologist Stanley (July, 1961) Milgram, Stanley Milgram experiments Experiments;psychological Milgram, Stanley Milgram experiments Experiments;psychological [g]United States;July, 1961: Psychologist Stanley Milgram Begins Obedience-to-Authority Experiments[01110] [c]Psychology and psychiatry;July, 1961: Psychologist Stanley Milgram Begins Obedience-to-Authority Experiments[01110] [c]Science and technology;July, 1961: Psychologist Stanley Milgram Begins Obedience-to-Authority Experiments[01110] [c]Education;July, 1961: Psychologist Stanley Milgram Begins Obedience-to-Authority Experiments[01110] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;July, 1961: Psychologist Stanley Milgram Begins Obedience-to-Authority Experiments[01110]

Milgram was an excellent student with wide-ranging interests in both the arts and sciences. For his doctoral dissertation, he studied the effects of group opinion on conformity. He was interested in the degree to which group consensus could influence the opinion of a new, naïve group member. His research showed that about one-third of the time the naïve individual would agree with the group’s opinion, even when that opinion was demonstrably wrong about a concrete event such as which of two musical tones was played for a longer time period or which of two written lines on a piece of paper was longer.

As a young professor at Yale Yale University University, Milgram expanded his interests to include research on how authority influences obedience. His 1961 experiments, later known as the Milgram experiments, were designed to see how much pain an average person would inflict on another person simply because he or she was directed to do so by an authority figure. Milgram soon was criticized for withholding the purpose of the studies; he told subjects that they were participating in an experiment on learning and memory. Had he attempted to conduct these experiments during the early twenty-first century, Milgram likely would have faced resistance. During the 1960’s, however, informed consent in studies involving humans lacked many of the rules that were instituted in later decades, and the time in which he worked saw much less institutional oversight of human experimentation.

Milgram designed his first experiment as follows. A stern, unemotional adult acted as the authority figure. A trained actor played the role of the learner, and the experimental subjects, all men in the first experiments, were cast in the role of the teacher. The teacher was presented with a bank of switches that administered electric shocks to the learner. The teacher was told that every time the learner made an error he should deliver an increasingly strong jolt of electricity to the learner. The shocks began with 15 volts of electricity (a mild stimulus) and increased in 15-volt increments up to 450 volts (an extremely painful shock). The shocks were supposed to be administered in strict order of increasing voltage. The teacher was given a shock of 45 volts before the experiment began as a reference point for what the learner would feel.

In the initial experiment, the learner and teacher met each other and then were sent to separate rooms; they could hear but not see each other. The teacher began the “instruction” by reading a word. He then asked the learner to choose a word from a list of four read out loud by the teacher that would pair with the first word. The authority figure reminded the teacher to shock the learner with an increasingly strong shock every time the learner made a mistake.

What the teacher was not told was that the learner was an actor and that no shocks were actually being delivered. Instead, each time the teacher shocked the learner, the learner played a tape-recording of his supposed vocal reaction to the shock. The taped reactions became increasingly anguished as the shocks got stronger. At high voltages, the actor would bang on the wall that separated him from the teacher and would become silent, as if injured. If the teacher expressed concern about the learner’s well-being or asked to stop the experiment, the authority figure prodded the teacher to continue, using four increasingly strong verbal commands. The experiment ended only if the teacher requested that the experiment stop following a fourth authority figure command.

Before he began the experiments, Milgram polled Yale psychology graduate students and faculty about what percentage of people they predicted would administer the highest level, 450-volt, shock. The consensus of these academics was that fewer than two people out of one hundred would intentionally continue to inflict pain on another person simply because he or she was told to do so by the experimenter. The results of this first experiment, however, astounded Milgram. His published results in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology in 1963 generated headlines and newspaper editorials across the United States. No one wanted to believe what Milgram had found: Of the forty men who participated as teachers in the first experiment, twenty-six of them, or 65 percent, administered the full range of shocks up to 450 volts when told to do so. They had continued the shocks even though they were visibly uncomfortable doing so. They often had asked the authority figure about stopping the experiment. Not one of the forty participants refused to shock the learner until the shocks reached an agonizing 300 volts. In addition, the teachers who refused to administer the final shocks did not complain that the experiment was inappropriate or insist that it should be discontinued.

Milgram went on to design about twenty variations of this experiment. He found that women were slightly more likely than men to complete the shock series, that more teachers completed the shock series when the authority figure remained in the room, that fewer teachers completed the shock series when they had to physically place the learner’s arm on the shock device, and that about two-thirds of teachers completed the shock series regardless of their nationality or cultural background. He concluded that in a structured society, an innate need exists that causes one to obey authority, regardless of one’s cultural background and gender. Furthermore, he concluded that when people have little information about a situation, they tend to comply thoughtlessly to the demands of authority. Milgram wrote about his extended experiments in his book Obedience to Authority (1974). Several films, including the documentary The Human Behavior Experiments (2006) and the fictional television movie The Tenth Level (1975), addressed the experiments as well.

Milgram was strongly criticized for the psychological discomfort he allowed his teacher-subjects to feel during the experiments. He was denied tenure at Harvard, at least in part because of the controversy, and spent the remainder of his career at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He went on to study what he called the “small world” phenomenon. This research produced the concept of “six degrees of separation,” meaning that every person can connect with every other person around the globe through a small number (the average is six) of intermediaries. Milgram died of a heart attack at the age of fifty-one.


The Milgram experiments showed that under certain conditions, normal, average people (the teachers) were inclined to abdicate personal responsibility when obeying an authority figure, even when the actions demanded of them made them stressed and uncomfortable. In following the instructions of an authority figure, the individual (the teacher) came to see himself as blameless for inflicting pain upon another human being (the learner).

Milgram’s findings, which led to changes in the way military leaders are trained, also helped to explain how ordinary persons could commit atrocities such as the Holocaust Holocaust; the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, in which many civilians were murdered; and the abuse and Torture torture at Abu Ghraib prison Abu Ghraib prison during the Iraq Iraq War War. In each case, the perpetrators excused their actions by saying that they were simply following orders. Milgram, Stanley Milgram experiments Experiments;psychological

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Andre, Claire, and Manuel Velasquez. “Conscience and Authority.” Issues in Ethics 1, no. 2 (Winter, 1988). An examination of the ethical questions surrounding the Milgram experiments.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blass, Thomas. The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram. New York: Basic Books, 2004. Book-length treatment of Milgram and his shocking experiments. The first full biography of Milgram.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______, ed. Obedience to Authority: Current Perspectives on the Milgram Paradigm. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2000. Essays explore the significance of Milgram’s experiments for continuing work in social psychology and make a case for the contemporary relevancy of his study.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cohen, Stanley. States of Denial: Knowing About Atrocities and Suffering. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2001. Asks how humans can deny the existence of pain and suffering in the world, that is, how people can refuse to acknowledge atrocities and continue to live their lives in the face of such knowledge.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Milgram, Stanley. Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. New York: Perennial Classics, 2004. Milgram’s book, originally published in 1974, reexamines his 1961 experiments with those who became obedient under the sway of authority.

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