Obedience and the work of Milgram - Social influence

AQA A-level Psychology: Revision Made Easy - Jean-Marc Lawton 2017

Obedience and the work of Milgram
Social influence


Obedience is defined as ’complying with the demands of an authority figure’. Milgram, from a New York Jewish family that fled Europe before the Holocaust, and a student of Asch’s, was interested in understanding how 10 million Jews and Gypsies were exterminated on the orders of the Nazis during the Holocaust. He set out to test the ’Germans are different’ hypothesis, which argued that the Holocaust occurred because Germans blindly obey authority figures. Milgram showed that people are more obedient than they realise, getting participants to apparently carry out painful acts against an unobjectionable stranger purely because a researcher ordered them to. Many objected to the researcher’s commands, but obeyed them to the end, showing that individuals do not necessarily agree with orders that they obediently carry out.


Fig 1.5 The Milgram experiment set up

Focal study

Milgram (1963) tested 40 American male volunteers, aged between 20 and 50 years, on their willingness to obey increasingly destructive orders. Believing it a study of memory and learning, volunteers drew lots with a second participant, actually a confederate (see page 2), to see who would be the ’teacher’ and who the ’learner’. This was rigged; the real participant was always the teacher. The learner was strapped into a chair in an adjacent room with electrodes attached to him. It was explained by a confederate researcher wearing a laboratory coat (that gave him legitimate authority) that every time the learner got a question wrong the teacher should shock him by pressing a switch on a (fake) shock machine. If the teacher refused, the researcher ordered him to carry on with a series of verbal ’prods’ (such as ’the experiment requires you continue’). The shocks went up in 15-volt increments to 450 volts, which was given 3 times per teacher. Initially happy to take part, the learner then began to protest and at 300 volts refused to answer more questions. At 315 volts he screamed loudly and was not heard from again. 100 per cent of participants obeyed up to 300 volts and 62.5 per cent went to 450 volts, even though some wept, some argued, and 3 had seizures. It was concluded that obeying authority figures is usual in a hierarchically arranged society, even when orders violate moral codes.


• Sheridan & King (1972), by using a puppy receiving real electric shocks, tested the idea that Milgram’s participants obeyed because they knew the procedure was false. 53 per cent of male participants and 100 per cent of female participants obeyed to the maximum voltage, suggesting that Milgram’s results were valid and that females are more obedient.

• Burger (2009) developed an ethically acceptable variation of Milgram’s study, with participants explicitly given the right to withdraw. Using males and females, an obedience rate of 70 per cent was found, suggesting that Milgram’s study can be conducted ethically and that obedience rates have not changed in the 50 years since Milgram’s study.

• Hofling et al. (1966) tested obedience in the real world, getting a pretend doctor to order real nurses to give an apparent overdose to a patient. 21 out of 22 obeyed, suggesting that obedience to destructive orders from a legitimate authority does occur in the real world.

Positive evaluation

Image Milgram’s is a paradigm study (the accepted method of researching obedience), which has allowed comparison of obedience rates in different countries, between genders, ages and occupations.

Image Valuable knowledge about obedience was gained; 74 per cent of Milgram’s participants said they learned something useful about themselves. Only 2 per cent regretted being involved.

Image Over 50 years later, Milgram’s study continues to fascinate new generations of psychology students, illustrating its long-lasting impact.

Negative evaluation

Image Milgram’s study is unethical. It involves: (1) deceit through confederates believing the shocks were real and that the study involved learning and memory; (2) a lack of informed consent, as deceit was used; (3) no right of withdrawal; (4) psychological harm. Milgram argued that participants could withdraw, as 37.5 per cent of them did; also that the harm was only short-term, was reduced by debriefing and made justifiable by the valuable findings.

Image Orne & Holland (1968) believed that Milgram’s study lacked internal validity, as participants knew the shocks were fake. However, 80 per cent of participants had ’no doubts’ about the authenticity of the study.

Image Rank & Jacobsen (1977) argued that Hofling et al.’s study lacks external validity. Their more realistic replication, which allowed nurses to consult each other and used Valium, a familiar drug, saw only an 11 per cent obedience rate.

Practical application

The knowledge gained from Milgram’s study is used to teach people to recognise and resist attempts to get them to obey destructive orders. Trainee aeroplane pilots undergo simulations where captains give wrongful orders so that they learn how to resist such potentially destructive commands.