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Milgram's Obedience Experiment

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychology Experiments

A controversial experiment on conformity and obedience conducted in the early 1960s.

Stanley Milgram (1933-1984), an American experimental psychologist at Yale University, conducted a series of experiments on conformity and obedience to authority. In these experiments, Milgram recruited subjects—ordinary citizens—through newspaper advertisements offering four dollars for one hour's participation in a "study of memory." When the subject arrived at the experimental laboratory, he or she was assigned the role of "teacher," and asked to read a series of word pairs to another subject, or learner. The teacher-subject then would test the learner's ability to recall the pairs by reading back the first word in each pair. Whenever the learner made a mistake, the teacher-subject was instructed to administer punishment in the form of electric shock. This instruction, by an authority figure or employer to administer pain to a human being, is at the heart of the controversy.

The teacher-subject watched as the learner was strapped into a chair and an electrode was attached to the learner's wrist. The teacher was encouraged by the experimenters to continue to administer the shocks. Milgram found that the 65 percent of the teacher-subjects would continue to do what they were told, even though the learners could be heard pleading and screaming, and concluded that most people will follow the instructions of an authority figure as long as they considered the authority as legitimate. Many psychologists and others questioned the ethics of conducting such experiments, where participants were encouraged, in the name of scientific experimentation, to inflict pain on others. Another aspect of the controversy surrounding Milgram's work focused on the implications of his findings for the future of societies and their authority figures.

Further Reading

Milgram, Stanley. "Behavior Study of Obedience." Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 1963.

——"Some Conditions of Obedience and Disobedience to Authority," Human Relations, 1965.

—— "Issues in the Study of Authority: A Reply to Baumrind," American Psychologist, 1964.

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