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Stanley Milgram: Experiment & Obedience

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  • 0:07 Stanley Milgram
  • 0:31 Obedience Study
  • 2:02 Impact on Psychology
  • 3:19 Ethics
  • 4:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Learn about Stanley Milgram's famous experiment on obedience to authority and what may determine obedience. Then, test yourself on why his experiment had such an impact in the psychology field.

Stanley Milgram

Stanley Milgram was a famous psychologist who studied how people interact with authority figures. Milgram, who was born in 1933, was interested in why normally good people did horrible things during the Holocaust in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. To answer that question, Milgram designed a famous, and in some ways notorious, study on obedience.

Obedience Study

In the early 1960s, Milgram ran his study on obedience to authority figures. He advertised that he was doing a study on memory and told participants that they were going to be acting as a teacher to another participant. In reality, the other person was not a participant but a confederate, that is, a member of Milgram's research team.

The study began with both the participant and confederate in the same room, and the confederate casually mentioned that he had a heart condition. After that, the confederate was moved into another room and the participant was placed in front of a machine and told that they had to quiz the confederate in the other room.

The participant was told that for every answer that the confederate got wrong, the participant had to administer a shock to the confederate. Though there were no real shocks, the confederate screamed and shouted as if he was being shocked, so that the participant really thought he was hurting someone.

Study participants were instructed to shock confederates when they answered wrongly.
Milgrim Experiment Shock

As the study continued, the participant had to increase the amount of the shock going to the confederate. Many of the participants felt really bad about it; some of them even began to shake or show other types of trauma. But, if they hesitated or said they wanted to stop, a person in a lab coat who appeared to be in charge told them that they had to continue to shock the person in the other room, and most of the participants continued on.

In this way, Milgram showed that even when people were asked to hurt others, and even when they didn't want to hurt others, they obeyed authority and were willing to do something that they believed was resulting in the suffering of someone else.

Impact on Psychology

Milgram's study was revolutionary at a time when there was very little scientific research on how people reacted to authority figures. His experiment opened up the door for many other studies to be done on obedience.

Milgram himself did many variations on this study in the years following its original publication. He traveled the world and did the same experiment, and tried doing it in different locations, such as a backroom off an alleyway, instead of in a respectable university. Surprisingly, he found that across locations and conditions, the percentage of participants who were willing to give the largest possible shock on the machine was about the same everywhere, approximately 60-65%. The only thing that Milgram found that changed that percent was how close the confederate was to the participant when getting the shocks.

Besides Milgram's variation on the study, many other psychologists used his research as a starting point for their own studies on authority and social roles. One of the most notorious studies in psychology, the Stanford Prison Experiment, was based on Milgram's findings. In the prison experiment, students were randomly assigned to be prisoners and guards in a pretend prison. The abuse by the guards got so out of hand that the study had to be stopped early.

Ethics

Participants were visibly upset by the idea of harming others.
Milgrim Experiment Participant

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