Milgrams Study – Destructive Obedience

Background Info.

Between the years 1933 and 1945, millions of innocent people were systematically slaughtered on command in Nazi Germany. This mass genocide could have only been carried out by copious amounts of people obeying orders.

Early psychological research into the Holocaust focused on the concept that Germans had a character deficit which lead to them having the high levels of conformity and obedience necessary for genocide to take place. This hypothesis is an example of dispositional attribution as it argues that the cause of behaviour was due to the Nazis personal characteristics and personality.

Differently, Stanley Milgram – a psychologist at Yale University – set out to question this dispositional attribution of the Germans as he believed that the situation itself was what led to the inhumane behaviours carried out by the Nazis, and that anybody would have shown the high levels of obedience they did under the same circumstances.

Milgram argued that people would commit almost any barbaric act if they were commanded to do so by an authoritative figure.

Aim of Study

To investigate what level of obedience would be shown when participants were told by an authority figure to administer electric shocks to another person.

Participants / Sample

The sample was 40 males between the ages of 20 and 50, who were residents in New Haven and the surrounding communities.

There were a wide range of occupations represented in the sample. These included: postal clerks, high school teachers, salesmen engineers and laborers (builders, etc.).

Not only did the participants show a range of occupations, but there was a variety of educational levels from one who had not completed elementary school to those who had doctorates and other high-level degrees.


Sampling Method (How the sample was collected) :

The sampling method used by Milgram to collect his participants was self-selected. It falls into the self-selected sampling category as all participants were obtained through a newspaper advertisement as well as direct mailing.  Those who responded to the appeal believed that they were participating in a study of memory and learning at Yale University.

They were paid $4.50 for their participation. They were informed that the money was for them to keep regardless on the outcome of the experiment.

Self-selected sampling can target people who posses the features under investigation (in this case, men between the ages of 20 and 50 – not including high school and college students), which is incredibly practical. However, one could argue that only certain types of people would apply to participate as only motivated people would do so. The offering of $4.50 upon participation may suggest that mostly people who are very money-driven would apply which would lead to the sample potentially being unrepresentative of the target population

Research Method

Milgram’s study is an observation as there was no independent variable meaning that it cannot be technically classed as an experiment. (Experiments must have both an IV and a DV to be classed as an experiment).

This observation was controlled as it took place in a setting manipulated by the researchers – in this case it was a laboratory setting. The controlled environment allowed data validity to be high compared to a naturalistic observation, as the recording of the data would likely be reliable.

However, because the environment was unfamiliar to the participants, and the scenario was unnatural, their behaviours would have been skewed, lowering ecological validity. As the participants were aware of the fact they were being observed, demand characteristics were likely to have been displayed.


Participants were obtained by the means of newspaper advertising, and were promised $4.50 for their time, including 50 cents for travel. It was made clear that the payment was just for turning up to the study and was theirs regardless of if they complete the procedure.

When each participant arrived at Yale University, he was met by an “experimenter” who had a stern expression and a lab coat to simulate an authority figure. The experimenter introduced the naïve participant to a confederate who he believed to be another participant, and then briefed on the supposed purpose of the experiment, which was described to them as an investigation of the effect of punishment on memory and learning.

The confederate selected was a 47-year-old accountant who was chosen because he was mild-mannered and likeable.

The confederate and the naïve participant were informed that one of them would play teacher, and the other would play learner to decide who would be “punished”, and this was decided through drawing slips of paper from a hat to determine the roles. The draw was rigged so that the naïve participant would always be the teacher –as far as the participant knew, the draw was fair.

The assigned teacher and learner were then taken to an adjacent room where the confederate was strapped into an “electric chair”. An electrode, which the experimenter claimed was attached to a shock generator, was attached to the “learner’s” wrist, and electrode paste was applied to avoid burns and blistering.

They were then shown the electric shock generator. This had a row of switches, each labelled with a voltage, rising in 15-volt intervals from 15V up to 450V. Additionally, different verbal designation was labelled on the shock generator, ranging from “slight shock” all the way up to “ Danger: Severe Shock”, and “XXX”.
Despite the sinister labels, participants were informed by the experimenter that “although the shocks can be extremely painful, they cause no permanent tissue damage”.

There was a wall between the teacher and the learner, meaning that the confederate could be heard, but not seen.

The lesson administered by the participant ( in the role of teacher) was a word-pair task in which the teacher read a range of word pairs and then read the first word of the pair, followed by four words. The learner was to indicate which of the four additional words was originally paired with the first one. His answer was communicated by pressing one of four switches in front of him, which lit up one of four numbered quadrants in an answer-box located at the top of the phony shock generator.

Each time the confederate-learner made a mistake, the naïve participant was instructed to administer a shock. The shocks grew with intensity each time a mistake was made; however, no shock was administered. There was no way for the participant to know this.

The learner gave a predetermined set of answers to the word-pair test, based on the ratio of three wrong answers to one correct answer. Up to 300V the confederate-learner did not signal any bad response to the shocks, but at 300V and 315V, he kicked the wall. After that, he was silent and gave no further responses. This suggested that he was hurt, potentially unconscious, or dead.

At this point, when the participants look to the experimenter for guidance, they were informed to treat no response as an incorrect answer. When they protested, they were met with four prods to encourage them to continue: “Please continue”/”please go on”, “The experiment requires you to continue”, “It is absolutely essential that you continue”, and “You have no choice, you must go on”.

Each participant had “completed” the procedure when they had either refused to give any more shocks despite the four prods, or when they reached maximum voltage (450V) on the shock machine.

Following the experiment, participants were interviewed. During this interview, they were asked to rate on a scale of 0-14 how painful they believed that last few shocks were. They were then informed that the shocks were not real, and that the real purpose of the study was to investigate obedience.

A friendly reconciliation was arranged between the confederate and participant in an attempt to reduce any tension that came about as a result of the study to try to ensure that the participant left the laboratory in the same mental state in which they entered.


  •  The confederate and the experimenter were played by the same people during every run of the experiment
  • Prods given to participant by the experimenter

Results (Qualitative) :

  •  With few exceptions, subjects were convinced that  the experiment was real and that they were administering shocks to another  person, most of which painful
  • Signs of extreme tension from many participants:  sweating, trembling, stuttering, lip biting, groaning, digging of fingernails  into own flesh, typical responses
  •  Quite common sign of tension was nervous laughing  fits.
  •   The  individuals that had laughing fits reassured the post-experimental  interviewers that they were not the sadistic type and stressed that the  laughter did not mean they enjoyed shocking the victim.
  • A few full-blown uncontrollable seizures were  observed.
  •  On one  occasion, 46-year old encyclopaedia salesman had a violent convulsive seizure  that resulted in the experiment being halted
  •  After the maximum shocks had been delivered, the  experimenter told the obedient subjects to stop; many of them heaved sighs of  relief, mopped their brows, rubbed their fingers over their eyes or fumbled  cigarettes nervously. Some shook their heads, apparently in regret.
  • Of the 65% who carried out the whole experiment,  some remained calm throughout the experiment and only displayed minimal signs  of tension throughout

Results (Quantitative): 

  •  “How painful to the learner were the last few shocks”, subjects indicated their answers on a 14-point scale. The mode response was 13.42/14
  •  All 40 participants obeyed up to 300 volts, at this point 5 refused to continue.
  •  4 gave one further shock before refusing
  •  1 person dropped off each at 345, 360, and 37
  •  14/40 (35%) defied the experimenter and 26 (65%) obeyed
  • 14/40 participants had nervous laughing fits
  •   3/40 participants experienced uncontrollable seizures

Three Reasons Obedience Levels Were So High: 

 Being paid from just showing up could have increased the sense of obligation and the need to earn the money that they were given so as not to feel as though they were given handouts.

 As far as they were concerned, the roles of learner and teacher had been allocated fairly and therefore the participants could not feel that the roles were allocated unfairly.

 The participants were assured that the shocks were “painful but not dangerous” and the short-term pain was therefore worth it for the long-term advance in knowledge and understanding of “Learning processes”


Milgram’s study supported the situational hypothesis rather than the dispositional hypothesis.

Milgram drew up two main conclusions from this study:

People are much more obedient to destructive orders than expected and estimated by psychology students. Most people are willing to obey destructive orders.

Despite being surprisingly obedient, people find the experience of receiving and obeying destructive orders highly stressful and obey despite emotional responses.

The situation triggers a conflict between two deeply ingrained tendencies: to obey those in authority, and not to harm people.


OCR Psychology for A Level Year 1 by Louise Ellerby-Jones, Sandra Latham, Nigel Wooldridge 

Oxford OCR A Level Psychology for AS and Year 1 Second Edition by Matt Jarvis, Julia Russell, Lizzie Gauntlett, Fiona Lintern 

AND Class Notes from 2018

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