Explanations for Obedience - Milgram (1963)
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Last updated 22 Mar 2021
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 ever 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 180 volts the learner complained of a weak heart. At 300 volts he banged on the wall and demanded to leave and at 315 volts he became silent, to give the illusions that 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.
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 bias sample of 40 male volunteers, 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.