• Research into obedience, including Milgram’s (1963) research into obedience and three of his variation studies: rundown office block (Experiment 10), telephonic instructions (Experiment 7), ordinary man gives orders (Experiment 13) as they demonstrate situational factors that encourage dissent.

Milgram’s experiment

Milgram (1963) conducted one of the most famous and influential psychological investigations of obedience. He wanted to find out if ordinary American citizens would obey an unjust order from an authority figure and inflict pain on another person because they were instructed to.

Milgram’s sample consisted of 40 male participants from a range of occupations and backgrounds. The participants were all volunteers who had responded to an advert in a local paper, which offered $4.50 to take part in an experiment on ‘punishment and learning’.

The 40 participants were all invited to a laboratory at Yale University and upon arrival they met with the experimenter and another participant, Mr Wallace, who were both confederates.

The experimenter explained that one person would be randomly assigned the role of teacher and the other, a learner. However, the real participant was always assigned the role of teacher. The experimenter explained that the teacher, the real participant, would read the learner a series of word pairs and then test their recall. The learner, who was positioned in an adjacent room, would indicate his choice using a system of lights. The teacher was instructed to administer an electric shock every time the learner made a mistake and to increase the voltage after each mistake.

The teacher watched the learner being strapped to the electric chair and was given a sample electric shock to convince them that the procedure was real. The learner wasn’t actually strapped to the chair and gave predetermined answers to the test. As the electric shocks increased the learner’s screams, which were recorded, became louder and more dramatic. At 300 volts he banged on the wall and at 315 volts he became silent, to give the illusions that he was unconscious, or even dead.

The experiment continued until the teacher refused to continue, or 450 volts was reached. If the teacher tried to stop the experiment, the experimenter would respond with a series of prods, for example: ‘The experiment requires that you continue.’ Following the experiment the participants were debriefed.

Milgram found that all of the real participants went to at least 300 volts and 65% continued until the full 450 volts. He concluded that under the right circumstances ordinary people will obey unjust orders.


  • Controls: In Milgram’s (1963) research he completed his obedience to authority experiment in a controlled laboratory environment, which allowed him to measure a cause and effect relationship between the IV – the presence of the authority figure and DV – the level of shocks administered.
  • Standardisation: Milgram’s (1963) research used a standardised procedure for all participants including using the same electric shock volts delivered through the generator, which increased reliability as participants would have thought they were delivering the same shock level consistently to all 40 learners. 
  • Validity: Participants showed genuine stress reactions when delivering shocks to the learner indicating they believed the shocks were real, which increased validity/mundane realism as the task had authenticity leading participants to deliver the electric shocks as instructed.
  • Ethics: Milgram’s met ethical standards as his debrief (1963) ensured that there were no lasting effects to participants, even up to 12 months later.
  • Milgram’s study has been heavily criticised for breaking numerous ethical guidelines, including: deception, right to withdraw and protection from harm.
  • Milgram deceived his participants as he said the experiment was on ‘punishment and learning’, when in fact he was measuring obedience, and he pretended the learner was receiving electric shocks. In addition, it was very difficult for participants with withdraw from the experiment, as the experimenter prompted the participants to continue. Finally, many of the participants reported feeling exceptionally stressed and anxious while taking part in the experiment and therefore they were not protect from psychological harm. This is an issue, as Milgram didn’t respect his participants, some of whom felt very guilt following the experiment, knowing that they could have harmed another person. However, it must be noted that it was essential for Milgram to deceive his participants and remove their right to withdraw to test obedience and produce valid results. Furthermore, he did debrief his participants following the experiment and 83.7% of participants said that they were happy to have taken part in the experiment and contribute to scientific research.
  • Milgram’s study has been criticised for lacking ecological validity. Milgram tested obedience in a laboratory, which is very different to real-life situations of obedience, where people are often asked to follow more subtle instructions, rather than administering electric shocks. As a result we are unable to generalise his findings to real life situations of obedience and cannot conclude that people would obey less severe instructions in the same way.
  • Finally, Milgram’s research lacked population validity. Milgram used a biased sample of 40 male volunteers, all from the same part of the USA, which means we are unable to generalise the results to other populations, in particular females, and cannot conclude if female participants would respond in a similar way.

Milgram’s Variations

Experiment 10: Rundown Office Block

Milgram aimed to see whether how the level of prestige of a location would affect obedience levels. Milgram paid volunteer participants to take part in a study conducted by research associates of Bridgeport. A rigged draw was used to allocate the participant to the role of teacher and confederate to the role of learner. The original apparatus from Milgram’s (1963) experiment was used such as the shock generator which went from 15v to 450v. Obedience in the rundown office block dropped to 47.5%. Milgram concluded that reduced prestige of a location led to fewer participants obeying.

  • Experiment 10 took place in a more realistic setting of an office block in Bridgeport, which increases the ecological validity of the research for completing an obedience task. It was a more natural setting for testing obedience because the participants are likely to have been in an office before.
  • The study in Bridgeport used Milgram’s standardised procedure, for example, the verbal prods, which increases the reliability of the obedience study as it can be replicated.
Experiment 7: Telephonic Instructions

Milgram aimed to see whether the physical distance between the experimenter and the teacher would affect obedience levels. When instructions were given over the telephone, obedience dropped to 22.5%. Milgram concluded that reduced proximity of the experimenter led to fewer participants obeying.

  • One weakness in Milgram’s Experiment 7 is that he placed participants in an artificial laboratory setting to answer the telephone which is not an ecologically valid setting for measuring everyday obedience to an authority figure giving instructions over the telephone.
Experiment 13 Ordinary Man Gives Orders

In experiment 13 only 20% of participants gave the maximum 450V shock. Obedience level dropped from 65% in Milgram’s original experiment to 20%. This demonstrated the dramatic power of uniform.

  • The procedure was standardised so could be replicated to test for reliability. The accomplice was always given the task of recording times at the experimenter’s desk and the experimenter was always called away by a rigged phone call.
  • The participant was deceived so the study has questionable ethics. The experimenter and ordinary man were accomplices of the study which the participant was not made aware of so was lied to.

Past Paper Questions

  • State one aim of Milgram’s telephonic instructions (Experiment 7) study. (1) October 2017
  • Give one conclusion Milgram made from his telephonic instructions (Experiment 7) study. (1) October 2017
2 Markers
  • Explain one weakness of Milgram’s telephonic instructions (Experiment 7) study in terms of validity. (2) October 2017
  • State two conclusions made by Milgram following his variation studies. (2)
  • Describe the results of Milgram’s ordinary man gives orders (Experiment 13) study. (2) June 2019
  • Explain one improvement to Milgram’s telephonic instructions study (experiment 7) that would increase validity. (2) October 2020
3 Marker
  • Describe the procedure of Milgram’s rundown office block (Experiment 10) study. (3) June 2017
4 Marker
  • Explain two strengths of Milgram’s rundown office block (Experiment 10) study. (4) June 2017
  • Explain one strength and one weakness of Milgram’s ordinary man gives orders (Experiment 13) study. (4) June 2019
6 Markers
  • Explain three ethical issues with Milgram’s original study. (6) October 2016
  • Milgram (1963) conducted research into obedience that included a laboratory experiment at Yale University. Explain three strengths of Milgram’s laboratory research into obedience. (6)
  • Explain three strengths of Milgram’s laboratory research into obedience. (6) January 2019
8 Marker
  • Discuss how obedience factors could explain why Riya has been successful at work. (8)
12 Marker
  • Evaluate psychological research into obedience. (12) October 2018