What was the Milgram Experiment?

The Unheard Nobel Intention Behind the Cruel Milgram Experiment

Scientific experiments always conjure up images of helpless animals in cages, white sterile labs and some form of cruelty. What about the field of psychology, where the test subjects for most experiments aren't white mice or monkeys but rather human beings? To learn about a radical and shocking psychological experiment of the 1960s, where an individual's commitment to obedience was tested, scroll below.
PsycholoGenie Staff
Last Updated: Dec 9, 2017
What is the difference between right and wrong? And when should one question the difference? If you are told to hit someone violently, you would object but what if your boss or your superior or even your elders told you to obey them and hit someone, then would you do it? Does someone's authority make an obviously wrong act, a right one? Questioning authority is a two-edged sword, you could end up being labeled a rebel or a troublemaker or you could end up compromising on your own sense of ethics. Ethical dilemmas can take various shapes and forms but with respect to obedience, the outcome can be very unpredictable. Read on to learn about the Milgram experiment, a psychological test to evaluate man's struggle between obedience and morality.

Background of the Experiment

Stanley Milgram was 28 years old, he had just graduated with a Ph.D. in social psychology from Harvard in 1961. At that time, a famed Nazi war criminal, Adolf Eichmann, was being tried for his crimes against humanity in Jerusalem. While the world was condemning and mulling over such a cruel person's punishment, Milgram had an interesting train of thought: what if they were just following orders? And this led to another question: what if people will do anything, no matter how cruel it is, just because someone in authority told them to do so? Can man's sense of right and wrong be influenced by authority? Is there a fine line between obedience and conscience and at what point will a man cross it? To answer such questions, Milgram devised an experiment, to observe and rank how much an individual will obey an authority figure. For his experiment, he advertised in newspapers and on the radio. 40 men from all walks of life responded, they were promised a pay of $4.50, irrespective of how they performed. The experiments were conducted in July 1961, in the Linsly-Chittenden Hall in the University of Yale's campus.

Outline of the Milgram Experiment

Three characters were involved in this experiment.
  • The Experimenter (E) - he was in charge of monitoring the proceedings and would provide instructions to the teacher (T).
  • The Teacher (T) - the teacher would ask questions of the learner (L) in the form of word pairs. He would check each answer and see if it was correct or wrong and act accordingly.
  • The Learner (L) - he was asked questions by the teacher and expected to answer the questions correctly.
The very beginning of this experiment was deceptive. The test subject and the learner (an actor hired by the experimenting team) were asked to draw slips of paper to decide their respective roles, either teacher or learner. But unknown to the test subject, all lots of paper are marked as "teacher". So the actor would lie and say his slip says "learner". This ensured the test subject would always be a teacher.

Next the learner was strapped to a chair and electrodes were attached to his arm in one room. This was done in front of the teacher. He and the experimenter were made to sit in another room, neighboring that of the learner's. Here the teacher was introduced to a rather frightening shock generator, marked with various levels of shock, from 30 - 450 volts. Labels such as "slight shock", "Danger: severe shock" and "XXX" were used. At this point, the teacher was told that he had to ask work-pairs to the learner and with each mistake the learner made, the teacher had to shock him, using the machine. The teacher was also given a sample shock, as an indicator of what it felt like. He was also told that with each shock, the voltage would be increased by 15-volts. The experiment started in the following manner, the teacher would read out a word pair. First a word was read, the learner was presented with 4 choices, as to its pair and had to press a respective button to answer the question. If correct, the teacher would read the next pair. If incorrect, the learner would be shocked.

In reality, the learner was never getting shocked. The shock generator machine was just a decoy, it was actually a tape recorder. When the teacher pressed a shock level button, intending to shock the learner, actually a pre-recorded cry or plea or yowl of pain was being played to the teacher, who thought it is coming from the learner. So the teacher felt that he was torturing the learner for an incorrect answer, when nothing of that sort was taking place. With each shock, the cries would be more agonizing and at a certain shock level, the teacher was told the learner have a heart condition. After some shocks, the learner would bang on the wall. At the last two higher levels of shock, the learner would not answer any questions.

The experimenter would sit and monitor the proceedings and not interfere in any manner. But if the teacher would ask to stop the experiment, the experimenter would reply with the following prods:
  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 teacher was told all four verbal prods, then the experiment was stopped. Else it ended only after the teacher shocked the learner, 3 times with the maximum 450 volt shock levels.

Milgram Experiment Results

Given the rather cruel premise of the experiment, Milgram's peers were rather skeptical of its results and felt that no or perhaps 1-2 subjects would go as far as the final shock level. Milgram polled senior year psychology students at Yale, who also felt very few would use the final shock level. But the results of the experiment proved them wrong. Firstly, all 40 subjects shocked the learner up to a maximum of 300 volts. And 26 out of 40 subjects shocked the learner at the maximum shock level of 450 volts. There were objections, the subjects protested at some point, they were also very ill-at-ease but in the end, they obeyed the experimenter and shocked the learner, irrespective of the high shock level and the pain felt by the learner. Also no one left the room to check on the learner's state. Milgram repeated the experiment at an office and reported that though the percentage was less, it was not of a significant amount. He also carried out the experiment with female test subjects, the rate of 65% prevailed. All such details were summed up in his article, "The Perils of Obedience" published in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, as well as in his book Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View.

In summation, psychology experts and critics have argued and still feel that the ethical problems with the Milgram experiment, make it a controversial topic and cruel experiment, which has tarnished the name of psychology experiments. But the harsh truth that Milgram was trying to expose is this: we do what we are told to do. And even if the command is a morally wrong one, that could hurt someone, our first and obvious instinct is to obey and follow. Such experiments highlight another ethical dilemma: who is the real bad guy or criminal here, the authority figure who issues the command or the individual who obeys and carries out such cruelty?