The Psychology Experiment That Shocked the World: Milgram’s Obedience Study (1961)

For decades fol­low­ing World War II,  the world was left won­der­ing how the atroc­i­ties of the Holo­caust could have been per­pe­trat­ed in the midst of—and, most hor­rif­i­cal­ly, by—a mod­ern and civ­i­lized soci­ety.  How did peo­ple come to engage in a will­ing and sys­tem­at­ic exter­mi­na­tion of their neigh­bors? Psy­chol­o­gists, whose field had grown into a grudg­ing­ly respect­ed sci­ence by the mid­point of the 20th cen­tu­ry, were eager to tack­le the ques­tion.

In 1961, Yale University’s Stan­ley Mil­gram began a series of infa­mous obe­di­ence exper­i­ments. While Adolf Eichmann’s tri­al was under­way in Jerusalem (result­ing in Han­nah Arendt’s five-piece reportage, which became one of The New York­er magazine’s most dra­mat­ic and con­tro­ver­sial arti­cle series), Mil­gram began to sus­pect that human nature was more straight­for­ward than ear­li­er the­o­rists had imag­ined; he won­dered, as he lat­er wrote, “Could it be that Eich­mann and his mil­lion accom­plices in the Holo­caust were just fol­low­ing orders? Could we call them all accom­plices?”

In the most famous his exper­i­ments, Mil­gram osten­si­bly recruit­ed par­tic­i­pants to take part in a study assess­ing the effects of pain on learn­ing. In real­i­ty, he want­ed to see how far he could push the aver­age Amer­i­can to admin­is­ter painful elec­tric shocks to a fel­low human being.

When par­tic­i­pants arrived at his lab, Milgram’s assis­tant would ask them, as well as a sec­ond man, to draw slips of paper to receive their roles for the exper­i­ment. In fact, the sec­ond man was a con­fed­er­ate; the par­tic­i­pant would always draw the role of “teacher,” and the sec­ond man would invari­ably be made the “learn­er.”


The par­tic­i­pants received instruc­tions to teach pairs of words to the con­fed­er­ate. After they had read the list of words once, the teach­ers were to test the learner’s recall by read­ing one word, and ask­ing the learn­er to name one of the four words asso­ci­at­ed with it. The exper­i­menter told the par­tic­i­pants to pun­ish any learn­er mis­takes by push­ing a but­ton and admin­is­ter­ing an elec­tric shock; while they could not see the learn­er, par­tic­i­pants could hear his screams. The con­fed­er­ate, of course, remained unharmed, and mere­ly act­ed out in pain, with each mis­take cost­ing him an addi­tion­al 15 volts of pun­ish­ment. In case par­tic­i­pants fal­tered in their sci­en­tif­ic resolve, the exper­i­menter was near­by to urge them, using four author­i­ta­tive state­ments:

Please con­tin­ue.

The exper­i­ment requires that you con­tin­ue.

It is absolute­ly essen­tial that you con­tin­ue.

You have no oth­er choice, you must go on.

In a jar­ring set of find­ings, Mil­gram found that 26 of the 40 par­tic­i­pants obeyed instruc­tions, admin­is­ter­ing shocks all the way from “Slight Shock,” to “Dan­ger: Severe Shock.” The final two omi­nous switch­es were sim­ply marked “XXX.” Even when the learn­ers would pound on the walls in agony after seem­ing­ly receiv­ing 300 volts, par­tic­i­pants per­sist­ed. Even­tu­al­ly, the learn­er sim­ply stopped respond­ing.

Although they fol­lowed instruc­tions, par­tic­i­pants repeat­ed­ly expressed their desire to stop the exper­i­ment, and showed clear signs of extreme dis­com­fort:

“I observed a mature and ini­tial­ly poised busi­ness­man enter the lab­o­ra­to­ry smil­ing and con­fi­dent. With­in 20 min­utes he was reduced to a twitch­ing, stut­ter­ing wreck, who was rapid­ly approach­ing a point of ner­vous col­lapse… At one point he pushed his fist into his fore­head and mut­tered: “Oh God, let’s stop it.” And yet he con­tin­ued to respond to every word of the exper­i­menter, and obeyed to the end.” 

Milgram’s study set off a pow­der keg whose impact remains felt to this day. Eth­i­cal­ly, many object­ed to the decep­tion and the lack of ade­quate par­tic­i­pant debrief­ing. Oth­ers claimed that Mil­gram overem­pha­sized human nature’s propen­si­ty for blind obse­quious­ness, with the exper­i­menter often urg­ing par­tic­i­pants to con­tin­ue many more times than the four stock phras­es allowed.

In the clip above, you can watch orig­i­nal footage from Milgram’s  exper­i­ment, fright­en­ing in its insid­i­ous sim­plic­i­ty. (See a full doc­u­men­tary on the study below.) The man admin­is­ter­ing the shock grows increas­ing­ly uncom­fort­able with his part in the pro­ceed­ings, and almost walks out, ask­ing “Who’s going to take the respon­si­bil­i­ty for any­thing that hap­pens to that gen­tle­man?” When the exper­i­menter replies, “I’m respon­si­ble,” the man, absolv­ing him­self, con­tin­ues. As the per­son receiv­ing the shocks grows increas­ing­ly pan­icked, com­plain­ing about his heart and ask­ing to be let out, the par­tic­i­pant makes his objec­tions known but appears par­a­lyzed, sheep­ish­ly turn­ing to the exper­i­menter, unable to leave.

Although Milgram’s work has drawn crit­ics, his results endure. While chang­ing the experiment’s pro­ce­dure may alter com­pli­ance (e.g., hav­ing the exper­i­menter speak to par­tic­i­pants over the phone rather than remain in the same room through­out the exper­i­ment decreased obe­di­ence rates), repli­ca­tions have tend­ed to con­firm Milgram’s ini­tial find­ings. Whether one is urged once or a dozen times, peo­ple tend to take on the yoke of author­i­ty as absolute, relin­quish­ing their per­son­al agency in the pain they impart. Human nature, it seems, has no Manichean leanings—merely a pli­ant bent.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Famous Stan­ford Prison Exper­i­ment on YouTube

Psy­chol­o­gist Philip Zim­bar­do Says to Young Men: You’re Edu­ca­tion­al­ly and Sex­u­al­ly Doomed

Her­mann Rorschach’s Orig­i­nal Rorschach Test: What Do You See? (1921)

Carl Gus­tav Jung Explains His Ground­break­ing The­o­ries About Psy­chol­o­gy in Rare Inter­view (1957)

Free Online Cours­es Psy­chol­o­gy

Ilia Blin­d­er­man is a Mon­tre­al-based sci­ence and cul­ture writer. Fol­low him at @iliablinderman

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Comments (13)
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  • Daniel says:

    Yes, it was “infa­mous” and it has influ­enced ethics in psy­chol­o­gy pro­found­ly. Now we have insti­tu­tion­al review boards (IRB) who use these exper­i­ments of exem­plary case of what is con­sid­ered ‘prob­lem­at­ic’. How­ev­er, I think these exper­i­ments were invalu­able in shed­ding light on an impor­tant issue — it’s not an author­i­tar­i­an per­son­al­i­ty that makes peo­ple do ter­ri­ble things, no char­ac­ter defect some socio­path­ic indi­vid­u­als have, it’s some­thing many peo­ple are vul­ner­a­ble to. Up to 2/3s of the par­tic­i­pants would have killed a per­son. Know­ing this allows peo­ple to learn to deal with it, remind­ing one­self of one’s per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty and moral judg­ment — which can­not be del­e­gat­ed or sus­pend­ed. And while prob­a­bly no IRB would allow these exper­i­ments to be done today, it would be very inter­est­ing to see what if any­thing has changed since Mil­gram’s exper­i­ments — and why.

  • Avi Burstein says:

    Radi­o­lab did a great seg­ment on the Mil­gram exper­i­ments which revealed that most peo­ple have mis­un­der­stood the lessons from it:

  • Bill Peschel says:

    Gina Per­ry, the author of “Behind the Shock Machine,” researched Mil­gram’s exper­i­ment and found seri­ous prob­lems with the method­ol­o­gy that this arti­cle mentions.nnEven Mil­gram him­self admit­ted, accord­ing to the arti­cle, “that his work was more art than sci­ence, and described him­self as a u201chopeful poet.u201d Hard­ly proof pos­i­tive that peo­ple are moral­ly weak and will­ing to bend to authority.nn

  • LucidaShell says:

    The “yolk of author­i­ty”? Is that cor­rect? Good arti­cle, but this made me laugh. :)

    • Belgian Girl says:

      what I got from this is that US econ­o­my was in bad shape if peo­ple would spend an hour doing this for $4.50. A joke per­pe­trat­ed on The New York­er and the Amer­i­can pub­lic but I’m not falling for it

  • Anon says:

    Did the man die?n

  • prince hall says:

    How does this relate to mil­i­tary train­ing of any kind , and by any coun­try. What does mil­i­tary train­ing actu­al­ly involve, and where are the sim­i­lar­i­ties to Pro­fes­sor Mil­gram’s approach?Are there sim­i­lar­i­ties in large cor­po­rate busi­ness cul­tures?

  • ReAnon says:

    Yes. The man died. They went through sev­er­al humans in the exper­i­ment, but the impor­tant thing is we learned that peo­ple are will­ing to kill oth­er peo­ple for $4/hr.

    (now that I have that sar­casm out of my sys­tem…)

    No. The man on the oth­er side of the screen was a paid actor. He received no elec­tric shock.

  • Brian Treacy says:

    If you have ever tak­en part in haz­ing for a club, it is scary how sadis­tic some peo­ple can be when giv­en the chance.

  • terrill brown says:

    Mil­gram’s exper­i­ments were ground break­ing in the study of human obe­di­ence.

  • Duncan Kindpop says:

    Hey guys this is very inter­est­ing, but you guys don’t know what youre talkin bout.

  • Pumpkin says:

    Youre damn straight!

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