To investigate how far people will go in obeying an authority figure
The study was concerned with the size of electric shocks that a person would be prepared to give another in the context of a psychological study of the effect of punishment on learning (this is what subjects thought they would be tested on). 40 volunteer male participants were obtained by newspaper advertisements and each volunteer was paid $4.50 on arrival.
In the laboratory, as well as the volunteer was an "experimenter" (a 31 year old biology teacher) dressed in a grey coat, and a person introduced as the other subject in the experiment (actually a 47 year old accountant trained for the part), and an impressive looking electric shock generator with flick down switches increasing from 15 volts to 450 volts.
A rigged draw took place so the volunteer was to be the teacher and the other person (accomplice) would be the learner (victim).
The participant (teacher) was told the shocks would cause no permanent tissue damage and was given a trial shock of 45 volts. The teacher and learner were taken to an adjacent room and the learner strapped into an electric chair apparatus and an electrode attached to his wrist. The teacher and the experimenter then returned to the shock generator. The participant (teacher) was told that every time the learner made an incorrect response on a paired associate task he was to be given an electric shock. The teacher was told to move one level higher on the shock generator each time the learner flashed a wrong answer.(went up 15 volts each time)
In actual fact the learner received no shocks at all, but a series of predetermined responses and audio-taped cries from the "victim" convinced the teacher of the authenticity of the situation.
If the teacher (volunteer participant) indicated that he did not wish to continue, the following "prods" were given by the experimenter:
- Please continue, or, please go
- The experiment requires that you continue
- It is absolutely essential that you continue
- You have no other choice, you must go on
The experiment finished when either the subject refused to continue (disobeyed the experimenters request), or had the maximum shock on the scale (450 volts).
The participant was then fully debriefed (told what the true aim was, reassured them that the "learner" was not harmed, and gave participants the opportunity to ask questions) as to the real nature of the experiment, re-introduced to the learner in a friendly way and reassured that no damage had been done since the learner had not really received any shocks at all.
Milgram asked staff and students to predict how many of the original 40 volunteers would continue shocking the victim right through to the final 450 volts. The student mean was 1.2% and for staff it was 0.1%. The actual figure was 65% of participants gave 450 volts and no participant stopped before 300 volts.
In the post experimental interview the participants were asked "How painful to the learner were the last few shocks that you administered to him?" The mean response was 13.42 out of a possible 14 which is "extremely painful" on the scale.
Milgram showed that obedience is exceptionally strong and that people were willing to shock other people to the point where they would have died because they obeyed the authority figure.
EVALUATION - STRENGTHS
- well controlled experiment as the procedure was standardised even the feedback from the learner was tape-recorded, while different variables were carefully manipulated to see the effect of obedience, which therefore increased reliability.
- the laboratory experiment was well controlled therefore avoiding any extraneous variables that may affect the DV (volts measured indicating obedience) other than the IV (presence of authority figure).
- Milgram's work was a landmark in obedience explanations and influenced to do similar research, e.g., Hofling et al did a similar study using nurses in a hospital setting and found they obeyed the authority doctor.
- his study has experimental validity in that the participants believed that they were really shocking another human being, so it was realistic to them.
- lacks ecological validity - because it was not a real life situation, the behaviour may not have been real therefore you cannot generalise.
- Milgram only used males in the original experiment/study, therefore, it is gender biased. So, can't be assumed females would do the same.
- unethical as harm was done to participants (psychological/physical). He deceived his participants.