Milgram summarised the experiment in his 1974 article, "The Perils of Obedience", writing:
The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous importance, but they say very little
about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University
to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered
to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects' [participants']
strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects' [participants'] ears
ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness
of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding
of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.
One of Milgram's motivations for initiating his research project was to understand how so many "good"
German citizens could become involved in the brutal murder of millions of Jews. Rather than search for
dispositional tendencies in the German national character to account for the evil of this genocide, he
believed that features of the situation played a critical role; that obedience to authority was a "toxic
trigger" for wanton murder. After completing his research, Milgram extended his scientific conclusions
to a very dramatic prediction about the insidious and pervasive power of obedience to transform ordinary
American citizens into Nazi death camp personnel: "If a systern of death camps were set up in the
United States of the sort we had seen in Nazi Germany, one would be able to find sufficient
personnel for those eamps in any medium-sized American town."
I. The Experiment
A researcher whose serious demeanor and gray laboratory coat convey scientific importance greets you and
another applicant at your arrival at a Yale University laboratory in Linsly-Chittenden Hall. You are here
to help scientific psychology find ways to improve people's learning and memory through the use of
punishment. He tells you why this new research may have important practical consequences. The task is
straightforward: one of you will be the "teacher" who gives the "learner" a set of word pairings to
memorize. During the test, the teacher gives each key word, and the learner must respond with the correct
association. When right, the teacher gives a verbal reward, such as "Good" or "That's right." When wrong,
the teacher is to press a lever on an impressive-looking shock apparatus that delivers an immediate shock
to punish the error.
The shock generator has thirty switches, starting from a low level of 15 volts and increasing by 15 volts
at each higher level. The experimenter tells you that every time the learner makes a mistake, you have to
press the next higher voltage switch. The control panel indicates both the voltage level of each of the
switches and a corresponding description of the level. The tenth level (150 volts) is "Strong Shock"; the
13th level (195 volts) is "Very Strong Shock"; the 17th level (255 volts) is "Intense Shock"; the 21 st
level (315 volts) is "Extremely Intense Shock"; the 25th level (375 volts) is "Danger, Severe Shock"; and
at the 29th and 30th levels (435 and 450 volts) the control panel is simply marked with an ominous XXX
(the pornography of ultimate pain and power).
You and another volunteer draw straws to see who will play each role; you are to be the teacher, and the
other volunteer will be the learner. (The drawing is rigged, and the other volunteer is a confederate of
the experimenter who always plays the learner.) He is a mild-mannered, middle-aged man whom you help
escort to the next chamber. "Okay, now we are going to set up the learner so he can get some punishment,"
the researcher tells you both. The learner's arms are strapped down and an electrode is attached to his
right wrist. The shock generator in the next room will deliver the shocks to the learner - if and when he
makes any errors. The two of you communicate over the intercom, with the experimenter standing next to you.
You get a sample shock of 45 volts, the third level, a slight tingly pain, so you now have a sense of
what the shock levels mean. The experirnenter then signals the start of your trial of the "memory
Initially, your pupil does well, but soon he begins making errors, and you start pressing the shock
switches. He complains that the shocks are starting to hurt. You look at the experimenter, who nods
to continue. As the shock levels increase in intensity, so do the learner's screams, saying he does
not think he wants to continue. You hesitate and question whether you should go on, but the experimenter
insists that you have no choice but to do so.
Now the learner begins complaining about his heart condition and you dissent, but the experimenter
still insists that you continue. Errors galore: you plead with your pupil to concentrate to get the
right associations, you don't want to hurt him with these very-high-level, intense shocks. But your
concerns and motivational messages are to no avail. He gets the answers wrong again and again. As the
shocks intensify, he shouts out, "I can't stand the pain, let me out of here!" Then he says to the
experimenter, "You have no right to keep me here! Let me out!" Another level up, he screams, "I absolutely
refuse to answer any more! Get me out of here! You can't hold me here! My heart's bothering me!"
Obviously you want nothing more to do with this experiment. You tell the experimenter that you refuse to
continue. You are not the kind of person who harms other people in this way. You want out. But the
experimenter continues to insist that you go on. He reminds you of the contract, of your agreement
to participate fully. Moreover, he claims responsibility for the consequences of your shocking actions.
After you press the 300-volt switch, you read the next keyword, but the learner doesn't answer.
"He's not responding," you tell the experimenter. You want him to go into the other room and check
on the learner to see lf he is all right. The experimenter is impassive; he is not going to check on
the learner. Instead he tells you, "If the learner doesn't answer in a reasonable time, about five
seconds, consider it wrong," since errors of omission must be punished in the same way as errors of
commission - that is a rule.
As you continue up to even more dangerous shock levels, there is no sound coming from your pupil's shock
chamber. He may be unconscious or worse! You are really distressed and want to quit, but nothing you say
works to get your exit from this unexpectedly distressing situation. You are told to follow the rules
and keep posing the test items and shocking the errors.
Now try to imagine fully what your participation as the teacher would be. I am sure you are saying,
"No way would I ever go all the way!" Obviously, you would have dissented, then disobeyed and just
walked out. You would never sell out your morality for four bucks! But had you actually gone all the
way to the last of the thirtieth shock levels, the experimenter would have insisted that you repeat
that XXX switch two more times, for good measure! Now, that is really rubbing it in your face. Forget
it, no sir, no way; you are out of there, right? So how far up the scale do you predict that you
would you go before exiting? How far would the average person from this small city go in this
II. The Shocking Truth
In fact, in Milgram's experiment, two of every three (65 percent) of the volunteers went all the way up
the maximum shock level of 450 volts. The vast majority of people, the "teachers," shocked their
"learner-victim" over and over again despite his increasingly desperate pleas to stop.
And now I invite you to venture another guess: What was the dropout rate after the shock level reached
330 volts - with only silence coming from the shock chamber, where the learner could reasonably be
presumed to be unconscious? Who would go on at that point? Wouldn't every sensible person quit, drop
out, refuse the experlmenter's demands to go on shocking him?
Here is what one "teacher" reported about his reaction: "I didn't know what the hell was going on. I
think, you know, maybe I'm killing this guy. I told the experimenter that I was not taking responsibility
for going further. That's it." But when the experimenter reassured him that he would take the
responsibility, the worried teacher obeyed and continued to the very end.
And almost everyone who got that far did the same as this man. How is that possible? If they got that
far, why did they continue on to the bitter end? One reason for this startling level of obedience may
be related to the teacher's not knowing how to exit from the situation, rather than just blind obedience.
Most participants dissented from time to time, saying they did not want to go on, but the experimenter
did not let them out, continually coming up with reasons why they had to stay and prodding them to
continue testing their suffering learner. Usually protests work and you can get out of unpleasant
situations, but nothing you say affects this impervious experimenter, who insists that you must stay and
continue to shock errors. You look at the shock panel and realize that the easiest exit lies at the end
of the last shock lever. A few more lever presses is the fast way out, with no hassles from the
experimenter and no further moans from the nowsilent learner. Voilä! 450 volts is the easy way out -
achieving your freedom without directly confronting the authority figure or having to reconcile the
suffering you have already caused with this additional pain to the victim. lt is a simple matter of up
and then out.
1. Summarize part I in your own words in no more than a 100 words.
2. Regarding part II, would you have imagined that 65 % of the volunteers gave shocks of up to 450 volts?
Substantiate your answer.
3. What, do you think, are the reasons why people would act so cruelly?
4. What personality would it take to resist acting in such a way?
5. Psychologists have found that 'situational forces' could lead to cruel behaviour. What, do you think,
does this mean?
6. Do you think, you would be immune to such cruel behaviour if you were to take part in the experiment
as a "teacher"? Give reasons for your answer.