You have just answered an advertisement to participate in an experiment from researchers at Yale University. You enter a professional looking building and are met by a professional looking man in a white lab coat. You have been paid $4.50 (which would have easily filled up your gas tank in 1961) to participate in a memory and learning experiment. The experiment requires that you play the role of "teacher" and another volunteer plays the role of "learner" (at least you think that he is a volunteer). The goal is to teach the learner to learn and recall a list of words. Sounds pretty simple, does it not?
This is the basic premise for one of the classic experimental studies in psychology: Stanley Milgram's (1963) Behavioral Study of Obedience. Milgram was influenced by the trials of Nazi war criminals, particularly Adolf Eichmann, who had claimed that they had only been "following orders" as their sole explanation for murdering millions of innocent civilians in concentration camps. Milgram wondered if people really would follow orders and perform behaviors knowing that their actions could potentially cause serious harm or death to innocent people. The procedure and design of this and further experiments by Milgram have become classic in their simplicity as well as their impact on how we understand the motivation behind obedience, and for their influence on later determinations of standards for the protection of human subjects in psychological research.
Forty male subjects were recruited for this initial study and paid for their participation, although it was explained that the payment that they received was merely for showing up to the experiment and not for participation; subjects were aware that they could withdraw anytime and keep the money. Everything was done to make the study appear as if was a legitimate learning study. There was an introduction to the "hypothesis" of the experiment ("little is known about the effects of punishment on learning..."). Subjects were required to draw slips of paper from a hat to decide who would be the learner and teacher; but in fact even the draw was rigged. Both slips of paper were marked teacher as the "learner" was a confederate (a part of the experiment). Milgram always use the same confederate over all subjects. The independent variable of the study was actually the setting, the illusion of authority, and the dependent variable was the subject's willingness to develop levels of electric shock to an ambiguous and unfamiliar victim. The learning paradigm used in the study was a sham as were the shocks and the learner followed a carefully prepared script to keep the experiment controlled.
The learning experiment required the teacher to administer an increasing series of shocks to the learner in order to motivate learning a list of words. Shocks were delivered from a panel clearly marked in terms of shock intensity from 15-450 volts with 30 groupings all the way from "Light Shock" to "Danger: Severe Shock." The teacher always received a sample 45 volt shock before beginning the experiment (to convince him that he really was administering a shock to the learner and to get a feel for the shock). Teachers were instructed to administer shocks to the learner whenever the learner failed to recall a word from a to-be remembered list of word pairs. The teacher and learner were separated into different rooms so the learning experiment could begin and communicated via an intercom system, thus distancing the two. In effect, the shocks were also a sham, unbeknownst to the teacher, and the roles of the learner and experimenter were well-scripted in advance with the experimenter providing only verbal encouragement to the teacher to continue on with the experiment if the teacher complained or stopped administering shocks. The learner's role was to first feign pain with each shock, as the shocks grew more intense to feign more discomfort, and then after one point in the experiment not respond at all to being shocked.
The "experimenter" was a 31-year-old biology teacher and delivered a scripted explanation of the experiment to the subjects. As the experiment proceeded some subjects questioned the procedure or refused to continue and the experimenter used a sequence of four "prods" to elicit cooperation ranging from "Please continue" to "You have no other choice, you must go on." If the subject refused following the last of the prods the experiment was discontinued. Milgram had pre-tested his design presenting idea and the method to over 100 pre-test subjects who predicted that that 0-3% of the subjects would keep administering shocks until the end. In effect, all of the subjects continued to administer shocks up until the 300 volt point (where shocks went from "Intense" to "Extremely Intense") and 26 of the subjects went all the way to the end of the experiment (450 volts, five levels above the "Danger" point). Milgram was careful to note the behavior of all subjects as they delivered what they believed to be severely painful and often nearly fatal shocks to an innocent victim.
Of course this study is a classic study that presents a look into the motivation behind many acts that people commit per instruction from some authority figure and on the surface seem cruel, inhuman, or even illogical. Milgram's authority in his experiments is not a patriotic cause or sense of duty to country, authoritarian leadership, or even the threat of physical cohesion, but the simple legitimate type of authority that is more expert and knowledgeable than the subject and one that requests his subjects to follow orders for a worthy cause. Milgram believed that this type of submission was "the essence of obedience." Basically he viewed these results and other results from follow up experiments as demonstrating how people come to view themselves as an instrument for carrying out another person's orders, requests, or wishes. When authority figures are followed in this manner people no longer view themselves as responsible and this is a critical shift in classic obedience. According to Milgram four things happened to subjects in his study: 1) they became absorbed in the technical side of the experiment and had a desire to appear competent; 2) there is a transference of the responsibility for their actions to the authority figure ("I was following orders"); 3) they choose to believe that the actions they perform are part of a larger worthy cause; and 4) they devalue the recipient of the actions. Thus, people are motivated by distancing themselves, their responsibility, the effects of their actions, and their behavior from the recipients of their actions. Milgram was also careful to note the responses of the teachers as they delivered what they believed were horrific shocks to people. Often subjects became very conflicted and visibly shaken, but despite this they still continued to obey the experimenter's requests to continue.
There are some issues in the methodology of the initial study. First, the recruitment procedure of advertising for participants and paying subjects a nominal fee is of course a far cry from a random sampling method. Males only were used in this study with a report age range of 20 years old to fifty years old, educational attainment ranged from less than a high school diploma to one doctorate degree. Of course we do not know the effects of education, ethnic background, gender, and other demographic variables on the dependent measure based on this study. Generalization is an issue. Secondly, the teacher and learner were separated and had no visual contact, and this may have influenced the teacher's behavior. Milgram later manipulated this as an independent variable and found the proximity to the learner did influence the teacher's willingness to administer the shock (for an explanation of all Milgram's experimental explanations see Milgram, 1974). Of course, due to the design of the experiment, there…