Social Study In Detail - Milgram (1963)

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Behavioural Study Of Obedience


Stanley Milgram


Milgram originally set out to test the ‘Germans are different’ hypothesis proposed by historians to explain the systematic destruction of millions innocent people in WWII. This hypothesis stated that Hitler could not have put his evil plan into effect without the co-operation of thousands of others which stemmed from Germans having a basic character defect, namely a readiness to obey without question, regardless of the acts demanded, providing Hitler with the co-operation he needed.

Milgram wanted to see if it was just Germans that possess this characteristic, or did others too? What level of obedience would be shown when subjects were told by an authority figure to administer electric shocks to another person.


40 males aged 20-50 from a range of educational and occupational backgrounds around the New Haven area, Conneticut, USA. Participants were recruited by a newspaper article and direct male advertising which asked for volunteers to take part in a study of memory and learning at Yale University. Participants were paid $4.50 for turning up and were told they could keep it whatever happened.


Two rooms within Yale were used; room one contained what looked like an electric shock generator with a row of switches that were labeled in the range of 15-459 volts in 15 volt increments. There were also descriptions of the types of shocks ranging from slight shock to XXX. Room two contained a chair with restraining straps where the learner was to receive shock through their wrists. There was also a tape recording of responses which we played according to which switch was presses ensuring that every participant heard the same responses in the same order.

The participant’s were introduced to ‘Mr. Wallace’ (a 47 year old accountant who appeared mild mannered and likeable) and were given the cover story that the study was about the effects of punishment on learning. The participant and the confederate then “drew lots” to see who would be the teacher or the learner. It was ensured that the participant would be the teacher by rigging the situation as both pieces of paper said “teacher”.

The participant then saw the learner strapped into the chair in the other room. At this point the learner said he had a slight heart condition and asked if the shocks were dangerous and the experimenter (a 31 year old “stern” biology teacher who wore a grey lab technician’s coat) said that although the shocks would be painful they would not cause permanent tissue damage. The participant and experimenter then returned to room one and the participant sat in front of the generator. It was then explained to him that the learner had to learn word pairs such as “blue box” and “nice day”. The participant had to read out the first word followed by four words, one of which would be the correct word that the learner had to choose by pressing one of four switches which would light one of four corresponding lights in front of the participant. If the learner gave a wrong answer than…


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