Milgram's Study of Destructive Obedience

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Milgram's Study of Destructive Obedience

Title: Behavioural Study of Obedience

Author: Milgram, S.

Date: 1963


As someone of Eastern European Jewish descent, Milgram was affected by the atrocities committed by the Nazis and was particularly interested in destructive obedience and what it took for them to commit such atrocities. Milgram was interested in investigating a dispositional hypothesis, and the suggestion that German culture led to the high levels of conformity and obedience necessary for the genocide that took place in World War Two. He was also interested in the social processes that take place between individuals and groups, the situational hypothesis. 

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Aim and Design


To investigate how obedient people would be to orders from a person in authority that would result in pain and harm to another person. More specifically, to see how large an electric shock Ps would give to a helpless man when ordered to by a scientist in his own laboratory. 



·         Milgram himself described it as a laboratory experiment

·         More accurately a pre-experiment, because there is only one condition

·         The results from this study then served as a baseline for a number of variations in follow-up studies

DV: Obedience (operationalised as maximum voltage given in response to Ps)

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  • 40 men aged 20-50
  • Recruited by means of a newspaper advert (volunteer sample)
  • Promised $4.50, plus 50¢ for travel
  • Range of backgrounds and jobs
  • 37.5% manual labourers, 40% white-collar workers and 22.5% professionals 
  • All from New Haven, Connecticut, USA
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·         Conducted at Yale University, New Haven, USA

·         On arrival, the Ps were introduced to a man believed to be the other P, and the two men were briefed on the supposed purpose of the investigation, described as investigating the effect of punishment on learning

·         The other man was a 47-year-old Irish-American accountant, mild-mannered and likeable and actually a confederate working for Milgram in the study

·         The naive P and confederate were told one of them would play the role of the teacher and the other the learner and then drew slips of paper to allocate roles, but it was fixed so the confederate was always the learner

·         they were then taken immediately into another room where the learner was strapped into a chair and had electrodes attached to him

·         They were shown the electric shock generator, which had a row of switches, each labelled with a voltage, and increasing in 15-volt intervals from 15V to 450V

·         Ps were told the shocks could be extremely painful but not harmful, and were given a 45V shock to demonstrate

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Procedure Pt. 2

  • There was a wall between the teacher and the learner so the teacher could see but not hear 
  • Procedure was administered by an experimenter, played by a 31-year-old male biology teacher
  • The P read out word pairs to test the learner
  • Each time the confederate-learner made a mistake, the experimenter ordered the teacher-P to administer an electric shock, getting larger by 15V with each mistake
  • The confederate-learner did not really receive shocks, but the P did not know this
  • Up to 300V the learner did not signal any response, but at 300V and 315V he pounded on the wall
  • He was then silent and did not respond to any further questions, suggesting he was hurt, or even unconscious
  • When Ps turned to the experimenter for guidance they were told to treat no response as incorrect
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Procedure Pt. 3

  • When the P protested, they were given a series of verbal prods:

               Prod 1: Please continue.

               Prod 2: The experiment requires you to continue.

               Prod 3: It is absolutely essential that you continue.

               Prod 4: You have no other choice but to continue.

  • Each P was considered to have completed the procedure when they refused to give any more shocks, or when they reached maximum voltage on the shock machine 
  • They were then interviewed and de-hoaxed
  • During their interview they were asked to rate on a scale of 0-14 how painful the last few shocks they gave was
  • They were then told that the last few shocks were not real, that the learner was unharmed, and that the true purpose of the study was to investigate obedience
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  • Psychology graduates had estimated only 1.2% of Ps would go all the way
  • Avg. voltage given by Ps was 368V
  • 10% of Ps gave shocks of 300V or more
  • 65% gave the full 450V
  • In the post-experiment interviews, the shocks were rated on avg. 13.42 out of 14


  • Gathered as comments and protests Ps made, and in the form of observations of body language
  • Most Ps showed signs of tension and signs included groaning, sweating, biting their lips and stuttering
  • 14 giggled nervously
  • 1 had such a severe seizure the procedure was stopped
  • Most Ps protested against the procedure, although the verbal prods were in most cases sufficient to get them to continue
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Milgram drew two main conclusions:

1. People are much more obedient to destructive orders that we might expect, and considerably more than psychology graduates estimated. In fact, the majority of people were willing to comply with destructive orders. 

2. People find experiences of receiving and obeying destructive orders highly stressful. They obey in spite of their emotional responses. The situation triggers a conflict between two deeply ingrained tendencies: to obey those in authority, and not to harm people. 

The results supported the situational rather than the dispositional hypothesis. 

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Conclusions Pt. 2

Milgram identified nine possible actors in the situation that may have contributed to the obedience. 

1. The study was carried out in a respectable environment of a top university.

2. The aim of the study appears to be a worthwhile one. 

3. The learner appears to have volunteered and so has an obligation to the experimenter.

4. The teacher too has volunteered and so has an obligation to the experimenter.

5. Features of the design (e.g. payment) increase sense of obligation.

6. From the perspective of the teacher, he might equally well have been unlucky enough to have been the learner and to have endured the shocks. 

7. The rights of the P to withdraw and the scientist to expect compliance are not obvious.

8. The Ps were assured that the shocks were not dangerous.

9. The learner has appeared to be comfortable with the procedure for the first 300V.

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