The Stanley Milgram Experiment

The Stanley Milgram Experiment (also called: Milgram Shock Experiment, Milgram Obedience to Authority study) is one of the most famous and controversial Social Psychology experiments of all time.

Date: July 1961

Experimenter: Stanley Milgram, Yale University

Goal: To measure a person’s willingness to obey an authority figure

Background/Reason for study: After WWII and Nazi defeat the question was posed: Were all the Nazis just following orders and obeying a authority figures? Nazi, Adolf Eichmann, was on trial for war crimes, was it possible he was just following orders?

Stanley Milgram Experiment
Like dogs, humans are very obedient.

Participants: 40 men who responded to a news paper add, all received $4.50 (roughly $35 today)

Method: Milgram built a rather large device that looked like it was designed to torture someone. It had switches on it with voltage numbers above each switch ranging from 30 up to 450 volts. Words were above the numbers with terms like, “slight shock” “moderate shock” “severe shock” and the last two buttons had “XXX” above them. It was pretty obvious if you were “shocking” a person that you could really be doing some damage.

This is where the deception comes into play. Two people walk into a room and meet the person leading the experiment. The people are “randomly” assigned to either be the teacher or the student. However, one of the people is actually working with the secretly experimenter as a confederate (person who is part of the experiment, they are “in on it”). So the person who is working with the experimenter, the confederate always becomes the student, and the participant becomes the teacher. This is set up for every experiment.

Now, the student (also called learner), goes into a different room. He is hooked up to a machine that has electrodes that appears to connect to the device with the different level of shocks. The teacher is handed a test to begin asking questions to the student over a microphone, but they can not see each other. The student has a script that has pre-determined answers to the questions. Many of them are intentionally wrong.

Every time the student answers incorrectly, the teacher then pulls a lever to shock the learner, starting with the smallest voltage for the first incorrect answer and progressing all the way up to the XXX fatal shock.

The most important thing to remember: NO ONE IS ACTUALLY GETTING SHOCKED. However, the person who is giving the shocks has been tricked into thinking that they are fully shocking a person. This is what the experiment is all about! After every wrong answer, zaaaaap! The teacher fully thinks that the person just received that level of shock, mild, moderate, severe and XXX level shocks, but really no body is getting zapped.

The “student” on the other side of a wall  would yell and scream as if he was actually getting shocked, then on the XXX shock, he stopped screaming to insinuate he maybe unconscious. If the person would hesitate to continue, or question the authority the “experimenter” from earlier would come back in and say the same lines:

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

Results: The level of shock that a person was willing to administer was considered the level of obedience. The results were alarming, 26 out of 40 (65%) were willing to administer the XXX lethal shock. Most people were predicting that between 3-8% of people would be willing to administer a lethal shock, no where near the 65% that Milgram had.
This study has been replicated in a variety of different setting, dates, and with a variety of people, the results are generally similar. Other research has been done in the field of obedience and the findings are alarming. People obey authority, no matter how small of the “authority” that he or she may hold.

Controversy: The concern was that people could suffer permanent psychological damage,  it could make people less trusting, and fear of repercussions when people realize that they were willing to deliver a fatal shock to a person over a missed question, or so they thought! Milgram stands by the fact that only 1% of the participants reported any distress and most were happy to have been a part.

The study in three words: Humans Obey Anyone

To reference this article:

Mikita, D. (2015). The Stanley Milgram experiment. Retrieved from Free Psychology Help:

In text, (Mikita, 2015).

Great video about the Stanley Milgram Experiment!