One of the most famous studies of obedience in psychology was carried out by Stanley Milgram
- Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University, conducted an experiment
focusing on the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience.
- He examined justifications for acts of genocide offered by those accused at the
World War II, Nuremberg War Criminal trials. Their defense often was based on
"obedience" - that they were just following orders of their superiors.
- 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 (1963) wanted to investigate whether Germans were particularly obedient
to authority figures as this was a common explanation for the Nazi killings in World
- Milgram selected participants for his experiment by advertising for male
participants to take part in a study of learning at Yale University. The procedure
was that the participant was paired with another person and they drew lots to find
out who would be the ‘learner’ and who would be the ‘teacher’. The draw was
fixed so that the participant was always the teacher, and the learner was one of
Milgram’s confederates (pretending to be a real participant).
- The learner (a confederate called Mr. Wallace) was taken into a room and had
electrodes attached to his arms, and the teacher and researcher went into a room
next door that contained an electric shock generator and a row of switches
marked from 15 volts (Slight Shock) to 375 volts (Danger: Severe Shock) to 450
Milgram (1963) was interested in researching how far people would go in obeying an instruction
if it involved harming another person. Stanley Milgram was interested in how easily ordinary
people could be influenced into committing atrocities for example, Germans in WWII.
Volunteers were recruited for a lab experiment investigating “learning” (re: ethics:
deception). Participants were 40 males, aged between 20 and 50, whose jobs ranged from
unskilled to professional.
At the beginning of the experiment they were introduced to another participant, who was
actually a confederate of the experimenter (Milgram). They drew straws to determine their
roles – leaner or teacher – although this was fixed and the confederate always ended to the
learner. There was also an “experimenter” dressed in a white lab coat, played by an actor (not
Milgram). The “learner” (Mr. Wallace) was strapped to a chair in another room with electrodes. After he
has learned a list of word pairs given him to learn, the "teacher" tests him by naming a word
and asking the learner to recall its partner/pair from a list of four possible choices.
The teacher is told to administer an electric shock every time the learner makes a mistake,
increasing the level of shock each time. There were 30 switches on the shock generator marked
from 15 volts (slight shock) to 450 (danger – severe shock).