This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 15 table of contents.

Obedience: Milgram (1963)

As a student, Stanley Milgram learned about Asch's conformity experiments and wondered if there might be a way to use them to study obedience to authority. Milgram later said, in an interview with Carol Tavris (Milgram, 1992):

How did Asch's experiment inspire Stanley Milgram?

I was trying to think of a way to make Asch's conformity experiment more humanly significant. I was dissatisfied that the test of conformity was judgments about lines. I wondered whether groups could pressure a person into performing an act whose human import was more readily apparent, perhaps behaving aggressively toward another person, say by administering increasingly severe shocks to him. (p.xxxi)

Milgram went on to test this idea, and his experiment became famous. One reason it became famous is that Milgram released an educational film about the experiment called Obedience (1965). It showed scenes from the actual experiment. Decades after the experiment, this video remained one of the most-requested items from university audio/visual centers.

Milgram's experiment began with a meeting between two subjects and an experimenter. One of the subjects was actually a confederate of the experimenter, but the other subject did not know this. The experimenter explained that the experiment was designed to study "the effect of punishment on memory." One subject was to act as a teacher; the other was to act as a learner.

The two subjects drew slips of paper to see who would be the teacher or the learner. Actually, both slips of paper said teacher so the na´ve subject (the one who was not a confederate of the experimenter) was always chosen as the teacher. The other subject, a friendly-looking middle-aged man, always announced that his slip of paper said learner.

What was the sequence of events in Milgram's experiment?

Now (the lab-coated experimenter explained) the learner would be placed in another room, and the teacher would read a list of word pairs into a microphone. The learner would listen through a loudspeaker in the other room. Whenever the learner remembered a word pair correctly, the teacher would proceed to the next word pair. Whenever the learner made a mistake, the teacher would give him an electric shock. The shocks would go up in intensity with each error.

Milgram's "shock generator"

The researcher gestured toward a scary-looking shock generator on the table. It was lined with 30 toggle switches, each labeled with a voltage going from 10 volts to 450 volts. The switches at the high end, near 450 volts, were labeled Extreme Shock, Danger: Severe Shock, and (at the very end) XXX. The na´ve subject (the teacher) was given a sample 45-volt shock to convince him of the authenticity of the apparatus. It hurt, so the subjects serving as teacher had every reason to believe there were actual, painful shocks being delivered to the learner.

The learner was led to another room and, while the teacher watched, the learner was strapped into a chair resembling an electric chair. The experimenter applied electrode paste to the learner's arms "to assure a good electrical contact" and strapped the learner's arms to the chair so the learner apparently could not escape from the shocks.

The learner (who had previously memorized his part) said, "I think you should know that I had a checkup at the VA Hospital the other day, and they think I have a heart condition. Will these electric shocks be dangerous?" The experimenter, also following a pre-arranged script, responded, "No, while they may be painful, they are not dangerous."

The teacher and experimenter then returned to the original room. The learner was therefore out of sight of the teacher. As soon as the teacher was out of sight, the "learner" released himself and put a tape-recorder on the desk. From that point on, the tape recorder was used to simulate the learner's voice, insuring that each teacher who participated in the experiment would hear the same words and sounds.

Now the fake experiment began. The teacher read the list, and the learner (in the next room) started by making correct replies. However, soon the learner was missing about 75% of the words. After each mistake the teacher was supposed to call out the correct answer, state the level of voltage, and administer a shock. For example, the teacher might say, "Wrong, the correct answer is BLUE; 10 volts." Then the teacher would press the shock button, which was accompanied by a strong, electrical-sounding BZZZT sound.

Following the instructions given by the lab-coated researcher, the teacher had to move up to the next higher voltage level following each error. "Wrong, the correct answer is BICYCLE. 20 volts." (Bzzt!) Soon the learner in the next room (actually a tape recorder) was yelping with pain after each shock.

What did Milgram call "prods" and when were they used?

At this point, the teachers typically turned to the lab-coated person who was pretending to be the researcher and asked if they should continue. The researcher urged the teacher to continue with one of four prods:

1. "Continue please." or "Go on."

2. "The experiment requires that you continue."

3. "It is absolutely essential that you continue."

4. "You have no choice."

Given one or more prods, about two-thirds of the subjects continued to administer stronger and stronger shocks. The other third would say things like, "Oh yes I do have a choice; I'm not going to continue."

The two-thirds of subjects who continued soon began to hear the learner yelling, "Get me out of here! I refuse to go on with the experiment! Get me out of here! My heart is starting to act up!" This caused most of the teachers to turn to the experimenter with a questioning look, saying, "He's yelling in there" or "I think he's hurt." But the experimenter just repeated the prods.

What happened after the learner pounded on the wall?

When the shock that was supposedly 300 volts was administered, the learner pounded on the wall of his room. At 330 volts the learner (actually the tape recording) let out a great scream of pain and fell silent. From then on, the learner was silent. He could have been dead, for all the teacher knew. But the experimenter urged the teacher to continue, saying that silence should be treated as a wrong answer. The teacher was asked to continue administering shocks right up to 450 volts, the XXX setting.

What reactions did the teachers have?

Milgram's subjects (the teachers) showed great distress as they went up toward the higher voltage levels. But most continued to obey. The following transcript, with most of the prods left out, is typical:

150 volts delivered You want me to keep going?

165 volts delivered That guy is hollering in there. There's a lot of these [switches] here. He's liable to have a heart condition. You want me to go on?

180 volts delivered He can't stand it! I'm not going to kill that man in there! You hear him hollering? He's hollering. He can't stand it. What if something happens to him?...I'm not going to get that man sick in there. He's in there hollering. Too many left here. Geez, if he gets them wrong... There's too many of them left. I mean who is going to take responsibility if anything happens to that gentleman? (The experimenter says he will take responsibility.) All right.

195 volts delivered You see he's hollering. Hear that. Gee, I don't know. (The experimenter says, "The experiment requires that you continue.") I know it does, sir, but I mean—huh—he don't know what he's in for. He's up to 195 volts.

210 volts delivered

225 volts delivered

240 volts delivered Aw now. You mean I've got to keep going up with the scale? No sir. I'm not going to kill that man! I'm not going to give him 450 volts. (The experimenter says, "The experiment requires that you continue.") I know it does, but the man is hollering in there, sir...

255 volts delivered... [and this subject continued right up to 450 volts, the XXX setting].

What did psychiatrists predict, before Milgram started the research? What happened instead?

Before conducting the research, Milgram asked a group of psychiatrists how far they thought the average subject would go. The psychiatrists thought most subjects would quit when the learner started protesting, which was about halfway through the row of switches (about halfway up the scale of shocks). Instead, 65% of the subjects went all the way up to the highest setting. They threw every switch, including the one marked "XXX" at which point (they might think) they were administering jolts to a corpse in the next room.

In follow-up studies, Milgram manipulated variables that might influence the obedience phenomenon. Closeness or proximity between experimenter and subject was one variable manipulated. For example, in one condition, the learner was seated in the same room as the teacher. At the 150-volt level, the learner refused to continue with the experiment and demanded to be set free. The teacher was instructed to hold the learner's hand and force it onto the shock plate. Less than 20% of the teachers were willing to do that.

What was the effect of proximity to the "learner"? Authority of the institution?

Milgram also manipulated the authority of the institution involved in the research. Most of the research was done at Yale University. When the experiments were conducted in a shabby second-story office in downtown Bridgeport, obedience levels fell somewhat, from 65% to 48%. However, even in a little office apparently run by Research Associates of Bridgeport, almost half the subjects went all the way to the highest setting on the shock generator.

In what respect was presence of a dissenter powerful?

One powerful variable Milgram manipulated was presence of dissenters. In this version of the experiment, subjects ran in groups of three at a time. Two subjects were confederates and one was a na´ve subject. When the shock apparatus reached 150 volts, one of the confederates stood up, announced he could not go on, and took a seat at the other end of the room. At the 210-volt level, the second confederate did the same thing. With both the confederates now refusing to go on and sitting on the other side of the room, the experimenter made strong efforts to get the third subject (the na´ve subject) to continue alone. About 9 out of 10 people refused to obey under these circumstances.

What is "one encouraging finding" from the Asch and Milgram research?

An encouraging finding from both the Asch research and the Milgram research is that dissent is powerful. When a few brave people speak out against obedience, it gives other people courage to dissent. No wonder dictators are reluctant to tolerate political dissent. They understand that dissenters in a group can "break the spell" so others feel free to disobey as well.

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