Milgram Experiment on Obedience to Authority Figures

Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures represents a variety of psychological experiments conducted by psychologist Stanley Milgram. In his experiment, Milgram measured the willingness of a test subject to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that were contrary to their ethical and moral beliefs.

milgram obedience to authority

Background

In July of 1961, Yale professor and psychologist Stanley Milgram began a series of experiments in order to determine the answer to an ethical question he was pondering on. Three months before Milgram began his experiments, Adolf Eichmann was being tried in Jerusalem for war crimes committed during World War II. In relation to the trials, Milgram wanted to determine could those accused have been merely following orders, regardless of their personal ethical and moral conflict.

Experiment

The experiment involved three individuals. The person running the experiment who would assume the authoritative attitude, one volunteer, and an actor who pretended to be the second volunteer. Experiment setup consisted of two rooms. The authoritative figure and the volunteer would sit in one room while the actor would sit in the other. Although they could communicate, the actor and the volunteer weren’t able to see each other. The volunteer had a switchboard in front of him which, to the best of his knowledge, induced electrical shocks of different strength to the actor in the other room. The volunteer him self felt the samples of shocks he was inducing upon the actor.

The volunteer was then given a list containing a number word pairs which he was to teach the actor. The volunteer would first read the list of word pairs to the actor and then he would read the first word of each pair to which the actor was supposed to answer with the correct matching word. If the answer was incorrect, the volunteer would administer a shock to the learner, with the voltage increasing in 15-volt increments for each wrong answer. If correct, the volunteer would read the next word pair. 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 actor would cease. At this point, many volunteers wanted to stop the experiment and check on the learner. Most, however, continued after being assured that they would not be held responsible. Some subjects began to exhibit signs of extreme stress once they heard the painful screams coming from the actor. If the volunteer expressed his will to halt the experiment at any time, the authoritative figure would use on or all of the following statements to ensure that the volunteer would keep going.

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

If the volunteer still wanted to stop, the experiment would be halted. Only other way the experiment would end is if the volunteer administered three 450 Volt shocks in a row.

Results

Before he conducted his experiment, Milgram polled the students and professors at Yale in regard to the nature of the experiment. The poll results indicated that only a very small percentage of volunteers would actually go all the way and administer the final 450 Volt shock to their subjects. The results, however, presented a grim reality. In the first round of experiments 65 percent of volunteers administered the 450 Volt shocks to their subjects. Most of them expressed signs of stress, while all of them stopped at some point to question the morality and purpose of the experiment. Interesting fact is that of those who gave up in the middle of the experiment, none actually demanded that the experiment should be terminated permanently, and none expressed desire to check on the actor to see how he is doing.