Stanley Milgram’s empirical research on obedience to authority was conducted in 1961. Milgram’s experiments examined the participants’ obedience behavior under instructions of an authoritative person who asked participants to give potentially dangerous levels of electric shock to a stranger. This research is “one of the most inspired contributions in the field of social psychology” (Russell, 2011, p. 140).
Milgram’s decision to study obedience to authority was motivated by his thoughts as a Jew about the Holocaust, his career goal in social psychology, and inspirations from Solomon Asch’s conformity experiments (Blass, 2009). In 1961 Milgram received a grant from National Science Foundation (NSF) and built the laboratory and equipment for this study. One objective of Milgram’s study was to answer the research question about people’s willingness to obey blindly, “how far will a person go in inflicting severe pain on a stranger when instructed to do so by an authority figure?” (Benjamin & Simpson, 2009, p. 16). Over 20 experiments with variations of the settings were conducted in Migram’s obedience research.
In the experiment, participants were told to help in a research of memory and learning. A serious experimenter who wore a lab coat explained that the pioneering study was to assess how punishment could affect learning. Each participant was assigned to the role of “teacher” to teach paired words from a given list to a “learner” acted by a research staff. The participant was required to punish each error by giving an electric shock and increase the intensity for continuous errors. The participant was instructed to use a bogus shock generator with switches ranging from 15 to 450 volts in 15-volt increments. Labels such as “Danger: Severs Shock” were put for switches of high volts. When the participant increased the shocks as requested by the experimenter, the response from the pretended “learner” increased from grunting to shouting and screaming, but the experimenter encouraged the “teacher” to keep going as far as possible.
The results of the experiments showed that the majority of participants were willing to obey the authority of the experimenter even though they felt such demands conflicted with their conscience (Myers, 2012). Milgram observed an obedience rate of 82.5 percent in the experiments. One experiment with 40 men showed that 65 percent of participants proceeded to each level of increased intensity up to the maximum 450 volts. The results were unexpected because from a survey of 100 Americans in various ages and occupations, all respondents "predicted that only an insignificant minority would go through to the end of the shock series" (Milgram, 1963).
To understand why so many people would “engage in horrific atrocities that cause considerable harm to other people” (Hogg & Cooper, 2007, p. 315), Milgram and other scholars explained that the situation played an important role. As Milgram (1963) stated, “the sheer strength of obedient tendencies manifested in this situation (p. 376). Strong situations can “overwhelm personality variables, even in well-intentioned and caring people” (Benjamin & Simpson, 2009, p. 16).
Benjamin, L. R., & Simpson, J. A. (2009). The power of the situation: The impact of Milgram's obedience studies on personality and social psychology. American Psychologist, 64(1), 12-19. doi:10.1037/a0014077
Blass, T. (2009). From New Haven to Santa Clara: A historical perspective on the Milgram obedience experiments. American Psychologist, 64(1), 37-45. doi:10.1037/a0014434
Hogg, M. A., & Cooper, J. (2007). The sage handbook of social psychology: Concise student edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4), 371-378.
Myers, D. G. (2012). Exploring social psychology (6th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Russell, N. (2011). Milgram’s Obedience to Authority experiments: Origins and early evolution. British Journal Of Social Psychology, 50(1), 140-162. doi:10.1348/014466610X492205