An Essay in Justification of Stanley Milgram's Study on Obedience

Every day, humans are faced with the subject of obedience. Stanley Milgram, a social psychologist, conducted an experiment to better understand why we obey and to what extent we will obey an authority figure. Diana Baumrind, author of “Some Thoughts on Ethics of Research,” discusses her viewpoint on Milgram’s experiment. She argues how his experiment was unethical and in a sense was rigged to produce the results Milgram wanted. On the other hand, Richard J. Herrnstein, author of “Measuring Evil,” agrees with Milgram and that his experiment was beneficial to people in that we can now understand was drives people to obey to an extreme.

Although both Herrnstein and Baumrind make valid points, Herrnstein’s argument was more convincing.

Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment to help him answer two major questions: Why did the Holocaust happen? and Where does evil reside in humans?. He set up his experiment using an experimenter, a teacher and a learner. Both the experimenter and the learner were actors.

The teacher, a volunteer, was told that this was an experiment to study memory and learning. The teacher was then told to read off word pairs to the learner that the learner was supposed to memorize. During this, the learner was strapped to a chair, which was able to give electric shocks to the person strapped in. Every time the learner answered a question wrong, he would receive a shock. This shock was administered by the teacher, which would become increasingly more dangerous as the learner kept giving wrong answers.

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When the experiment came to an end, Milgram was shocked with the results. Around 80% of the volunteers went all the way up to the most deadly voltage, marked “XXX”. Milgram discovered the answer to both of his questions. He believed the holocaust happened because of the Industrial Revolution, which caused a division in labor. He also came to the conclusion that evil in inside all of us and there are no new forms of it. Some people just choose to hold it down and not let it show.

Baumrind and Herrnstein argue, in their articles about many of the various parts of Milgram’s experiment. On the issue of the setting in which the experiment was performed, Baumrind believes that the laboratory setting of the experiment may have persuaded the volunteers into obeying what the experimenter instructed them to do more easily because it would have put the experimenter in a high authority position. She argues how the experiment was rigged in a sense that the teacher” would have obeyed differently if put into a different, less stressful situation. Baumrind explains, “Because of the anxiety and passivity generated by the setting, the subject is more prone to behave in an obedient, suggestible manner in the laboratory than elsewhere,” (Baumrind 423).

On the other hand, Herrnstein explains how the laboratory setting was necessary to produce accurate results. He states how if the experiment were to be performed in a less controlled environment, then the results would have been skewed and not as consistent. Herrnstein mentions how if the variables of the experiment are constantly changing, then there is room for error and the results of the experiment would have been inconclusive. One of Baumrind’s arguments is the argument of the setting of the experiment. She argues how the setting may have had too much control on the experiment, causing the volunteers to be more easily persuaded into obeying. Herrnstein, however, makes a valid argument to this. Herrnstein is right when he explains the situation of the setting. Yes, the setting may have caused some persuasion, but if the experiment were conducted in any other setting, the results would have been scattered and inconsistent. When anyone conducts an experiment, they set very precise factors so that when and if they were to vary the experiment, only one factor would change. This leads to more consistent results and allows the experimenter to observe the effects of the experiment when one factors changes.

Baumrind also makes the argument on how even though the setting was part of why the experimenters obeyed, it was also because the experimenters were volunteers, which would automatically make them more willing to obey because they understood that they signed up to partake in this experiment. However, Baumrind over looks parts of this argument. With this particular experiment, it would have been wrong of Milgram to forcefully make subjects participate in this experiment. This also relates back to the setting because since the teachers are volunteers, Milgram has to make sure that they truly believe that this is a real experiment for a scientific purpose. Performing this experiment in a more casual setting might have lead the volunteers to believe that the experiment was fake, thus preventing Milgram from answering his questions. Milgram had to be confident on which setting to have the experiment take place in to ensure this wouldn’t happen.

On the one hand, Baumrind is correct in that the laboratory setting of the experiment may have made the teachers feel more obligated to obey. However, on the other hand, Milgram would not have observed the same results if the experiment was performed in a less controlled environment. In the experiment, Milgram had very controlled factors such as the recorded voice of the learner, the set answer of the experimenter and the environment in which the teacher was put in. Herrnstein explains how, “He had a predetermined schedule of answers for the learning task, generously larded with mistakes for which he would then get ‘shocked’,” (Herrnstein 82).

In conclusion, Herrnstein’s article consists of more convincing evidence to support Milgram. He very carefully takes parts of counter arguments towards Milgram’s experiment and explains how the actions he took were necessary to the experiment in order to discover accurate finding. Experiments like these can be very useful for scientists. It opens up new door for them to be able to discover new things about the way humans act in certain circumstances. When Milgram performed this experiment, he showed the world the effects that major authorities have on humans in a less powerful situation. “Some system of authority is a requirement of all communal living, and it is only the person dwelling in isolation who is not forced to respond, with defiance or submission, to the commands of others”.


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An Essay in Justification of Stanley Milgram's Study on Obedience. (2022, Feb 22). Retrieved from

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