Milgram, S (1963), Behavioral Study of Obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4): 371–78

Psychology Being Investigated

This experiment aimed to investigate the psychological mechanisms of obedience, specifically how far individuals would go in obeying an authority figure, even when the orders given are against their ethical standards.

This research was influenced by the events of World War II, particularly the Holocaust, where individuals followed orders that resulted in mass harm. Milgram wanted to understand the nature of obedience and its limits, especially how ordinary people could be influenced by authority to commit acts against their moral beliefs.

Key findings of the study included that a significant majority of participants were willing to administer the highest level of shocks, showing a strong tendency to comply with authority figures despite personal moral objections. This outcome highlighted the powerful influence of authority on individual behavior and raised important questions about responsibility and autonomy in situations involving obedience to authority.


The background of Stanley Milgram’s study is rooted in the historical and social context of the early 1960s. The experiment was designed to understand the phenomenon of obedience to authority, particularly in light of the atrocities committed during World War II, such as the Holocaust. The key question that Milgram sought to explore was: How could ordinary people be compelled to carry out horrific acts simply because they were following orders from an authority figure?

This interest was partly inspired by the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi official who played a significant role in the Holocaust. Eichmann’s defense during his trial was that he was merely following orders and therefore not personally responsible for his actions. This defense raised profound moral and psychological questions about the nature of obedience and personal responsibility.

Milgram’s experiment was an attempt to scientifically investigate these issues. He wanted to see if ordinary American citizens would obey authority figures to the extent of harming another person, and under what conditions this obedience would occur. The experiment was designed to isolate the effects of authority, removing other potential factors such as peer pressure or group influence.

The broader aim was to understand the conditions under which people would commit acts that conflicted with their personal conscience and moral principles. Milgram’s research was part of a larger movement in social psychology at the time that sought to understand how social contexts and situational factors influence individual behavior. The findings from this study have had a lasting impact on our understanding of social psychology, particularly in areas related to authority, conformity, and ethical decision-making.


The aim was to investigate the extent to which individuals would follow orders from an authority figure, even when these orders involved harming another person. Specifically, Milgram sought to understand the dynamics of obedience to authority and to test the hypothesis that people are inherently inclined to obey authority figures, regardless of the morality of the action required.

  1. How far would individuals go in obeying an authority figure when the commands involved inflicting pain on another person?
  2. Would ordinary people defy their own moral and ethical principles if instructed to do so by an authority figure?


Sample and sampling technique

40 male participants aged between 20 and 50 years, from various educational and occupational backgrounds. They believed they were participating in a study on learning and memory.

Voluntary sampling – Participants were recruited through newspaper ads and direct mail solicitation, offering a small payment for participation.

Research Method

Controlled observation with a single-blind procedure (participants were unaware of the true nature of the study). The setting was Yale University’s psychology laboratory.


  • Conducted at Yale University, the experiment took place in a lab setting designed to look like a learning and memory test environment. Upon arrival, each participant was assigned the role of a ´teacher´. A confederate of Milgram, who was part of the research team, played the ´learner´.
  • The learner was strapped to a chair in an adjacent room, with electrodes attached, supposedly for delivering shocks.
  • The teacher was shown a shock generator with switches ranging from 15 volts (labelled as “slight shock”) to 450 volts (labelled as “danger: severe shock”). To convince the teacher of the shock’s authenticity, they were given a sample 45-volt shock.

Conducting the Experiment

  • The teacher read out pairs of words, and the learner had to remember and repeat them.
  • Each time the learner (confederate) gave a wrong answer, which was pre-arranged, the teacher was instructed to administer a shock. With each incorrect answer, the shock level was increased.
  • The learner, who wasn’t actually receiving shocks, acted out scripted responses, including grunts at lower voltages and eventually screaming, pleading to stop, and feigning unconsciousness at higher voltages.
  • Experimenter’s Prods – If the teacher hesitated to administer shocks, the experimenter, an authority figure, would give standard prods like “The experiment requires that you continue,” encouraging the teacher to proceed.

Data Collection

  • The primary data collected was how far each participant would go up the voltage scale before refusing to continue.
  • The highest shock level the participant was willing to administer was recorded.


  • Manipulated Variable – The authoritative commands by the experimenter.
  • Measured Variable – The highest level of shock the participant was willing to administer.


  1. Standardized Instructions and Setting – The experiment was conducted in a laboratory at Yale University, which provided a controlled environment. The setting was kept consistent for each participant to ensure that environmental factors did not influence the results.
  2. Shock Generator and Labels – The shock generator used in the experiment had switches labeled from 15 volts (slight shock) to 450 volts (danger: severe shock). The labels were designed to give the participants a clear and consistent indication of the shock’s severity.
  3. Scripted Learner Responses – The learner´s (confederate) responses were consistent for each session. This included responses to the word-pair test and banging on the wall at 300V and 315V.
  4. Experimenter’s Prods – If the participant hesitated or wanted to stop, the experimenter (authority figure) would use a series of standard prods or commands. These prods were the same for each participant, ensuring that the level of authority pressure was consistent. The prods were:
    • Prod 1 – Please continue, or Please go on.
    • Prod 2 – The experiment requires that you continue.
    • Prod 3 – It is absolutely essential that you continue.
    • Prod 4 – You have no other choice, you must go on.
    • Special prods – If the participants asked about the learner suffering permanent injury: ¨Although the shocks may be painful, there is no permanent tissue damage, so please go on.¨
    • If the participant commented that the learner wanted to stop: ¨Whether the learner likes it or not, you must go on until he has learned all the word pairs correctly. So please go on.¨
  5. Sample Shock – To convince the participants of the authenticity of the shocks, they were given a sample 45-volt shock at the beginning of the experiment. This control ensured that each participant had a uniform perception of the shocks’ realism.


The results of Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiment are illustrated in the graph above. It shows the number of participants willing to administer each increasing voltage level:

  • At 300 volts, 35 out of 40 participants were still administering shocks. No participant stopped before 300 volts.
  • This number gradually decreased as the voltage increased, with 26 participants continuing to the maximum level of 450 volts.

This graph strikingly demonstrates the high level of obedience to authority, with a significant proportion of participants willing to administer potentially lethal shocks when instructed by an authority figure. The drop in numbers at higher voltages indicates some resistance or hesitation, but the overall high compliance is a notable finding of the study. ​


The conclusion of Stanley Milgram’s obedience study was profound and somewhat unsettling. It demonstrated that a significant proportion of ordinary people are willing to obey authority figures to an extreme extent, even to the point of harming another person, when they perceive the authority to be legitimate. Key conclusions of the study include:

High Level of Obedience – A majority of the participants (65%) administered the highest shock level of 450 volts, despite expressing discomfort and moral dilemma. This indicated that people are likely to follow orders from an authority figure, even when such orders conflict with their personal conscience.

Underestimation of Obedience – The results contradicted the expectations of both the general public and the psychological community. Before the experiment, Milgram had surveyed professionals who predicted that only a very small percentage of participants would proceed to the highest shock levels.

Power of the Situational Context – The findings highlighted the influence of the situational context and the authority figure’s presence. Participants were more likely to obey when they perceived the authority figure as legitimate and responsible for the consequences.

Ethical Issues

Deception – Participants were misled about the true nature of the experiment. They believed they were administering real shocks to the learners, which was not the case. This deception was considered necessary for the experiment’s validity but raised serious ethical questions.

Psychological Harm – Participants were subjected to extreme stress and anxiety, believing they were harming another person. This caused emotional distress, which was evident in their reactions during the experiment, such as sweating, trembling, and stuttering. Even though participants were debriefed after the experiment, the immediate psychological impact was significant.

Right to Withdrawal – Although participants were technically free to leave the experiment at any time, the verbal prods used by the experimenter (“The experiment requires that you continue”) made it difficult for them to exercise this right. This situation created a coercive environment, where participants might have felt obligated to continue.

Informed Consent – The participants did not give fully informed consent because they were not accurately informed about the nature of the study. True informed consent requires that participants are fully aware of what they are consenting to, including any potential risks.


  • Controlled Environment – The laboratory setting allowed Milgram to control many variables, such as the role assignments, the scripted responses of the learner, and the consistent prodding by the experimenter. This control helped ensure that the observed effects were due to the manipulation of the independent variable (authority) rather than other external factors, allowing for high internal validity.
  • Standardised Procedure – The experiment followed a standardized procedure for all participants. The consistent use of the shock generator, the scripted responses of the learner, and the experimenter’s prods ensured that each participant experienced a similar situation. This standardization reduced the risk of extraneous variables influencing the results, improving the internal validity.
  • Objective Measurements – The experiment relied on quantitative data, specifically the voltage levels at which participants stopped administering shocks. This objective measurement allowed for precise and standardised comparisons between participants. This facilitates statistical analysis and also improves internal validity as it eliminates bias from the results analysis.


  • Gender Bias – The experiment primarily consisted of male participants, with no female participants included in the initial study. This gender bias raises questions about the generalizability of the findings to both genders. It is possible that men and women may respond differently to authority figures, and by excluding women, the study may not fully capture the breadth of human behaviour in obedience situations.
  • Cultural Representation – The participants were predominantly from Western, American backgrounds. This lack of cultural diversity limits the generalizability of the findings to other cultures, as cultural factors can significantly influence attitudes toward authority and obedience. What might be considered acceptable or authoritative in one culture may differ in another.
  • Demand Characteristics – Due to the unusual nature of the experiment, participants may have speculated about its true purpose. Some participants might have guessed that the shocks were not real or that the experiment was designed to test their obedience. This speculation could have led them to modify their behavior in a way they believed was expected, potentially reducing the experiment’s internal validity.