"...far more, and far more hideous, crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion."

~C.P. Snow, English novelist, 1905-1980 (as quoted in Franzoi 297)

About Milgram's Obedience Experiment (1960-1963)

Milgram's subjects consisted of men of different ages and occupations, all of whom had answered a request for volunteers for a study on learning at Yale University, that paid $4.50. After each subject arrived at the laboratory, he was introduced to his "co-subject," a mild-mannered man of about fifty, who, in actuality, was a confederate (an accomplice of the experimenter whom participants assume is a fellow subject or bystander) (Franzoi 545). The experimenter, a stern man in a gray laboratory coat, explained the purpose and procedure: the experiment measured the effects of punishment on learning. One subject was the "teacher," who would read a list of word pairs to the other subject, the "learner:" for example, "blue-girl," "nice-day." The learner was supposed to memorize these pairs; the teacher would then test the learner, by reading the first word of each pair. The teacher and the learner remained in separate rooms, and thus, the learner indicated his responses by pressing a button on a panel before him. This action activated a corresponding light on the teacher's control panel. These individuals drew lots to determine the "teacher" and the "learner," yet the drawings were rigged so that the naive subject always became the teacher (Meyer 97; Wortman, Loftus and Weaver 608-9; Franzoi 297).

Above: The false shock generator Milgram used in his obedience experiment (image from Wortman, Loftus and Weaver 62).

Each time the learner answered incorrectly, the teacher was to punish him by administering an electric shock from an authentic-looking shock generator, which contained thirty marked switches, ranging from 15 to 450 volts. (Unbeknownst to participants, the shock generator was false and could not shock individuals). The device, however, appeared real. Labels under the switches indicated the intensity of the shock, beginning with "Slight shock," and progressing through moderate, strong, very strong, intense, extremely intense, severe (also marked "Danger"), and ending with a label ominously marked "XXX." With each mistake the learner made, the teacher increased the voltage by one level, or 15 volts. When the learner discovered that he would be receiving shocks, he mentioned to the experimenter that he had a mild heart condition: "Nothing serious, but since electricity is being used, I thought I should tell you" (Franzoi 297; Meyer 98; Wortman, Loftus and Weaver 608-9).

Above: The setup for Milgram's experiment, with the learner isolated in a separate room from the experimenter and the teacher (image from http://www.new-life.net/milgram.htm).

The teacher watched as the learner was strapped into a chair, and an electrode, presumably connected to the shock generator, was attached to the learner's wrist. The teacher and the experimenter then proceeded to the generator room, where the teacher received a "sample shock" of 45 volts from a concealed battery, as the generator itself was harmless, producing only clicking and buzzing sounds. Yet for the teacher, the sample shock "proved" the machine's authenticity (Franzoi 297; Meyer 98; Wortman, Loftus and Weaver 608-9).

The experiment began; the plan arranged for the learner to commit many errors, requiring the teacher to administer increasingly severe shocks. If the teacher proceeded to 300 volts (the highest level in the "Intense" shock range), the learner pounded on the wall. At 315 volts ("Extremely Intense"), the learner pounded again, but then fell silent. Afterwards, no lights flashed on the teacher's panel in response to his questions. The experimenter instructed the teacher to treat the lack of response as an incorrect answer, and raise the voltage. If the teacher asked to stop the procedure, the experimenter told him to continue, stating "Please go on" or "You have no choice, you must go on." If the teacher refused to obey, the experiment ended (Franzoi 297-9; Meyer 99; Wortman, Loftus and Weaver 608-9).

How many people disobeyed the experimenter's commands? When did the majority of participants stop obeying? Did anyone continue to deliver all the shocks, including the dangerous 450 volts, despite the learner's protests? College students, middle-class adults, and psychiatrists presented with this scenario predicted that participants would disobey by 135 volts, and none thought that subjects would shock the victims beyond 300 volts. Moreover, the psychiatrists hypothesized that less than one-tenth of 1 percent of participants (one person out of one thousand) would obey the experimenter completely (Franzoi 298-9). Milgram even stated, "...before I began this experiment, before any shock generator was built, I thought that most people would break off at 'Strong Shock' or 'Very Strong Shock.' You would only get a very, very small proportion of people going out to the end of the shock generator, and they would constitute a pathological fringe" (Milgram, as quoted in Meyer 98).


Stanley Milgram Homepage
About the obedience experiment
Follow-up Studies
Biography of Stanley Milgram: his life and work
The Results
Interpretations of the Results
Basis for the experiment

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Works Cited/Useful Links