An Overview of Stanley Milgram's Experiment on Obedience

How much will one do under the orders of an authoritative figure? Stanley Milgram wondered just this over fifty years ago while working at Yale University. In 1963 he set up an experiment that would become one of the most well-known studies in psychology and has been documented in nearly every general psychology textbook in print. Milgram chose this subject to help understand the horrible acts done specifically during the Holocaust and generally throughout history purely out of obedience. His study concerned three people, one being the true subject and the other two being actors.

The experimenter would command the true subject to injure the confederate or fake second subject. The biggest difficulty to overcome when designing the experiment was how to go about it without actually injuring the fake second subject. An innocent but large and terrifying “shock generator” was built that consisted of thirty switches divided into groups labeled by the intensity of the shock. The subjects recruited for the experiment were forty males between the ages of twenty and fifty, their economic statuses varying.

The two actor participants were the experimenter who was dressed officially and authoritatively and the confederate who acted as a second subject. The true subject was brought in, sat next to the confederate, and informed that the experiment would be studying the effect of punishment on learning. Slips of paper were pulled from a hat to determine who would play as the “teacher” and who would play as the “learner”. This drawing was set up so that the true subject was always the teacher and the confederate always the learner.

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The true subject would then watch while the confederate was strapped down and had electrodes attached to them and then was given a list of words to test the learner on. They were instructed to administer a shock for every wrong answer, and increase the voltage each time they administered a shock.

A predetermined and pre-recorded set of responses for the learner was made as well as a pre-recorded set of cries of discomfort, heart pain, and finally refusal of response were created. The true subject was instructed to continue the test and assume the silence as an incorrect answer. At times, they would often pause and look for guidance from the experimenter as to whether or not to continue despite the confederate’s shouts of pain and would receive a series of commands that increased in severity the more frequent the pauses became.

The results were analyzed based on which level of voltage the subject refused to continue the experiment. According to their hypotheses, “no more than 3 people out of 100 were predicted to deliver the maximum shock… every subject continued at least to the 300-volt level, which was when the confederate banged on the wall to be let out and stopped answering”. (S. Milgram, p. 304). 65% of the subjects reached maximum voltage without disobedience. Afterwards to avoid psychological trauma, all subjects were informed of the true purpose of the experiment and were asked to describe their feelings throughout the study. They justified their participation with reasons ranging from the reputation of the institution (Yale University) that was hosting the study to the fact that it was merely chance that they wound up as the teacher, they could have easily been the learner and obligatory of the other position.

Milgram repeated this study varying the situations that he placed the subjects in to find some other interesting results. 93% of the subjects obeyed through the end when they could neither see nor hear the learner being shocked, only 30% obeyed to maximum voltage when the subject was instructed to physically put the learner’s hand on a shock plate, and a mere 21% obeyed til the end when the experimenter was giving the directions over the phone. This all reveal different things about aspects of obedience. For one, if the person the subject is administering shocks to is not seen and therefore their pain cannot be observed, then subjects are much more likely to obey through til the end. If the subject must physically force the other person to be injured, the obedience drops immensely. Lastly, when the person giving orders is a distance away, obedience drops even further. This study pulled me in at first out of recognition and then by it’s shocking results.

Many subjects nearly suffered a nervous breakdown during the experiment, and yet they continued to follow orders despite the obvious fact that refusal would alleviate their anxieties. The outcome of this experiment revealed a lot about how far people are willing to go under direct orders and what role obedience plays in behavior and social psychology.


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An Overview of Stanley Milgram's Experiment on Obedience. (2022, Feb 22). Retrieved from

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