Milgram - Behavioural study of obedience

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Milgram (1963)

Behavioural study of obedience

Background and Context

During WW2 Adolf Eichmann organised the holocaust, he was put on trial or war crimes and claimed he was only obeying orders. The idea that obedience is more likely to occur in the presence of a legitimate authority figure. In the past historians had assumed the Germans must have some form of character. 

Key terms and Definitions

Obedience - Complying with the demand of an authority figure.

Stooge - A person pretending to be a participant.

Authority figure - Someone you percieve as having a legitimate reason to give an order.

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Milgram (1963)

Aims and Hypotheses

To investigate what level of obedience participants would go to, when asked to deliver electric shocks to someone, by an authority.

Research Methods

A laboratory experiment because there were many controls but no IV. 

Was an observation and self report due to the results from the participants.


Self-selection sampling of 40 males aged 20-50. Advert poster, paying $4 an hour for their time, requesting for no students and certain roles. 

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Milgram (1963) - Experiment


1) Participants were told the experiment was investiagting punishment and learning.

2) Participants were tested individually and were always the teacher.

3) Participants saw the 'learner' get strapped into a chair and were told that the shocks were safe

4) Participants were given a sample shock of 45 volts from the shock generator.

5) The teacher was seated in a room adjacent to the learner and read over the intercom a set of pair words

6) The teacher then asked the learner to identify the correct answer from a choice of 4 by pressing buttons. 


- Word pairs   - Sample shock   - Shock instructions  - Feedback from learner   - Experiment prompts

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Milgram (1963) - Experiment



Break off points 

300 volts - 5,   315 volts - 4,   330 volts - 2,   345/360/375 volts - 1,   450 volts - 26


Particpants showed signs of tention and were observed to sweat, bite lips, tremple, stutter, have nervous laughter, have seizues and be angry.


The situation made strong tendencies to obey and generates extraordinary tention and emotional strain. 

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Milgram (1963) - Evaluation

Explanation of findings

Due to 1) sponsered by Yale university 2) High purpose experiment 3) Victim volunteered          4) Being paid 5) Chance of being the teacher 6) Lack of clarity from experimenter 7) Shocks had no long term effect 8) Answering questions showed they were willing to take part, meant that an unexpectedly high amount of obedience was observed.


- It was carried out in the USA and may not reflect obedience of other countries.

- Obedience to authority can be expected to be seen in other countries.

- Replications to this study was carried out in other countries and high levels of obedience was also found.

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Milgram (1963) - Evaluation



Consent - Gave consent but was not fully informed.

Withdrawal - Had right to withdraw but were prompted not to.

Confidentuality - Names were kept private but refered to a person in his conclusion.


Protection from harm - Some participants experienced seizures and anxiety.

Debrief - Not fully debriefed on the experiment.

Deception - Not actually a memory test.

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Milgram (1963) - Evaluation


Internal - The procedure was standardised with controls and was replicable.

External - The sample was large enough to suggest a consistent effect however was only a sample of males so wouldnt be representitive.


Internal - The test measued obedience as people followed instructions given to them. It could also measure other behaviours such as morals or empathy for others.

External - Has low population validity due to only being a sample of all men in the new haven area.

Has low ecological validity due to shocking someone being unrealistic.

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Milgram (1963) - Evaluation

Link to social area

Reveals the extent to which peoples behaviour can be influenced by other people around them and how obedient they can be.

Link to key theme of responses to people in authority

Tell us about obediance to people in authority, even if they are asking to cause harm to someone else.

Links to debates

Usefulness - Could be misused by leaders in authority and head to a Nazi like environment.

Freewill/Determinism - Can be seen as freewill as 35% of people did not finish the experiment but can be considered determinism due to 65% finished the experiment.

Individual/Situational - The situation may have encouraged people to continue the shocking.

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