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The Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures (1961)

Updated: Oct 19, 2023

The Milgram experiment, conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram in 1961, is one of the most famous experiments in social psychology. The experiment was designed to study the power of authority and obedience and to answer the question of whether or not an individual would be willing to follow orders that were seen as morally and ethically wrong.

Milgram conducted his experiment by first recruiting forty male participants through newspaper advertisements. The participants were told they were part of a study on memory and learning. They were paired with a “teacher” who was actually a confederate of the experimenter. The teacher was instructed to ask the participants a series of questions and then give them an electric shock each time they gave an incorrect answer. The shocks were simulated, as the participants believed they were delivering real shocks to another person in the next room.

Milgram suggested that two things must be in place for a person to enter the agentic state:

1. The person giving the orders is perceived as being qualified to direct other people’s behavior. That is, they are seen as legitimate.

2. The person being ordered about is able to believe that the authority will accept responsibility for what happens.

The results of the experiment showed that 65 percent of the participants were willing to go up to the highest level of shock, which was labeled “Danger: Severe Shock.” This result was shocking to many people and sparked a debate on the power of authority and obedience.

Participants were debriefed after the experiment and showed much relief at finding they had not harmed the student. One cried from emotion when he saw the student alive, and explained that he thought he had killed him. But what was different about those who obeyed and those who rebelled? Milgram divided participants into three categories:

1. Obeyed but justified themselves. Some obedient participants gave up responsibility for their actions, blaming the experimenter. If anything had happened to the learner, they reasoned, it would have been the experimenters fault. Others had transferred the blame to the learner: "He was so stupid and stubborn he deserved to be shocked."

2. Obeyed but blamed themselves. Others felt badly about what they had done and were quite harsh on themselves. Members of this group would, perhaps, be more likely to challenge authority if confronted with a similar situation in the future.

3. Rebelled. Finally, rebellious subjects questioned the authority of the experimenter and argued there was a greater ethical imperative calling for the protection of the learner over the needs of the experimenter. Some of these individuals felt they were accountable to a higher authority.

Milgram’s experiment caused a great deal of controversy and criticism, as it was seen as unethical. In the years since, the experiment has been repeated and modified in an attempt to address ethical concerns. While the results of the experiment remain the same, it has been argued that the conditions in which the experiment was conducted were not conducive to valid results.

Overall, the Milgram experiment is an important study in the field of social psychology. It demonstrated the power of authority and obedience, and has been used to explain why people often follow orders even when they are seen as morally wrong. The results of the experiment have also been used to explain why people often engage in collective action, such as in the case of genocide.

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