Obedience in Milgram's Experiments Research Paper

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Obedience, Morality and the Scientific Process in Milgram

During the period between 1963 and 1974, social psychologist, professor and theorist Stanley Milgram published a landmark series of findings regarding the nature of morality, authority and obedience. Compelled by the recently revealed atrocities of the Holocaust, Milgram was driven to better understand the kinds of institutional forces that could make ostensibly ordinary men and women commit acts of such heinous proportions as did the Nazis. This would lead to a series of experiments that were as controversial as they were revelatory. In spite of the many criticisms that have been applied to Milgram's experiment, both in terms of its empirical control and its ethicality, the discussion here makes the case that the Milgram Shock experiments would illustrate the connection between obedience and the surrender of personal moral responsibility.


This is to argue that in spite of the flaws in his experiments, Milgram would achieve the goal of lending insight into the way that ordinary individuals could become capable of horrendous and inhumane behavior. According to Gibson, "the basic procedure in these conditions involved a participant arriving at a laboratory, ostensibly to take part in a study concerning the effects of punishment on learning, and finding themselves caught up in a situation in which they took the role of 'teacher' in a memory task." (Gibson, p. 290) The experimental paradigm then required these 'teachers' to administer what they believed to be electric shocks, ranging from mild to severe, to an unseen individual in an adjacent room. As the cries of anguish from the unseen individual grow louder, some participants become reluctant to continue with the experiment. However, they are urged forward by the self-proclaimed authority of the head researcher. Under these circumstances, the majority of participants, some more reluctantly than others, agree to administer the series of shocks leading up to the highest voltage.

This willingness, Milgram would conclude, demonstrates that even in spite of their own personal discomfort or moral concern over certain behaviors, the majority of individuals are willing to behave unethically when urged by a presumed authority. The study was seen as both remarkable and disturbing in its time and continues to generate debate today, much of it surrounding the paradigm used by Milgram to conduct his study. In spite of concerns over the ethical implications of the study methodology, there is a collective sense today of the value in Milgram's findings. According to Nicholson (2011), "Milgram did concede that his study was right on the line of what was ethically permissible, but he always insisted that the ethical riskiness of his work was more than offset by the extraordinary gains that were accrued, namely the revelation of something 'dangerous': the tendency for people to harm others when ordered by an authority figure (Milgram, 1974, p. 188)." (Nicholson, p. 741)

This argument would be met which great resistance for the ensuring years following the Milgram experiments. To this very point, the Milgram experiments would be almost as important for the impact and their findings. Namely, the result of these experiments would be the proposition of a clearer set of parameters for conducting ethical scientific experimentation. Standards for the ethical treatment of study subjects would become essential. In the process, Milgram's reputation would be impacted by a heavy critical backlash. As Nicholson points out, even as Milgram worked to understand the forces at play in contexts such as Nazi Germany, his own experiments were viewed by some as perverse and exploitive.

Nicholson points out though that history has vindicated Milgram by giving us further imperative to explore the implications of obedience. According to Nicholson, "since 9/11 and the emergence of torture and 'refined interrogation techniques' as matters of public interest (Henley, 2007), the enthusiastic and largely uncritical discussion of Milgram's work has continued apace and possibly accelerated." (Nicholson, p. 739)

This presents that point that Milgram's experiments would be as important as they first appeared in terms of broadening our understanding of human behavior and especially the phenomenon of obedience. In attempting to understand what allows individuals to act in ways that they know to be unethical as a consequence of hierarchical pressures, Milgram would reveal much about the relationship between individuals and authority. According to Gibson, in fact, one eye-opening distinction between his various experimental trials would be Milgram's finding that participants were obedient to a level as high as 65% when studies were conducted on the Yale campus whereas the use of a nondescript office-building led to an obedience rate of 47.5%. (Gibson, p. 292)

The implications of this difference help to give even further value and intrigue to the Milgram findings, suggesting that the mere appearance of authority could be a significant factor in the willingness of subordinates to cede their own moral perspective and free will. According to Gibson, "Milgram's (1974) own attempt to theorize destructive obedience revolved around the concept of the agentic state. Briefly, this account suggested that obedience relied upon people ceasing to view themselves as autonomous social actors, instead entering a psychological state in which their actions were controlled by some other agent." (Gibson, 292)

In this respect, it can be asserted that Milgram achieved exactly that which he set out to achieve. The experiments would help to bring nuance and illumination to the subjects of free will, morality and obedience. If the initial goal was to produce a study in which we gained a better understanding of how moral individuals make the transformation to amoral channels for authoritarian directives, Milgram was absolutely successful in this. In fact, as Nicholson notes above, the wave of state-sponsored violence implicated by the continuing War on Terror has cast a whole new light on the Milgram experiments. As a result, many attempts have been made to utilize the best dimensions of the Milgram studies in new contexts.

According to the text by Navarick (2012), "researchers have continued to explore alternative approaches in the form of simulations (Geller, 1978; Slater et al., 2006) and most recently in the form of a partial reproduction of Milgram's original procedures (Burger, 2009), an approach that required participants to be screened by clinical psychologists to minimize the risk of harm from the levels of stress that were anticipated." (p. 134)

This denotes that the ambition behind the Milgram experiments and the assumptions that informed their structure and findings continue to have a tremendous amount of scholarly value today.


In spite of the value of the Milgram trials, it must be acknowledged that the experiments would leave much to be desired in terms of their scientific soundness. Certainly, one of the most apparent flaws in the Milgram study has been revealed only over time. That is, the study has proven to lack the ability to be replicated. According to Russell (2010), "nobody since has managed to bridge this gap, and as a consequence there is 'no conclusive theory to account for destructive obedience -- or defiance, either' (Miller, 2004, p. 233). Even the American Psychologist, who in 2009 dedicated a full issue -- 64(1) -- to the OTA experiments, does not advance matters on the theoretical frontline." (Russell, p. 141)

At least part of this may be due to the fact that the conditions of the original experiment cannot be replicated under the terms of modern experimental ethics. Indeed, more than any other aspect of Milgram's highly controversial experiments, the ethical considerations have caused genuine consternation. In the case of the Milgram experiments, it is not clear that the researchers behaved appropriately with respect to the use of their research subjects. At the very basis of the study is the advancement of a deceptive premise and the stimulation of stress for participants on the basis of this premise.

To the point, some critics would express their greatest concern over the fact that the participants in the study would be subjected to distress as a result of their participation. Today, the International Research Board holds that any such experiment that might inflict undue emotional distress or trauma on the participant is highly unethical. There is no debate regarding the permissibility of the methods used by Milgram. Modern researchers recognize that in spite of the researcher's contributions on the subject of human obedience and morality, the study cannot be conducted in its original form for the purposes of reinforcing the validity of its findings. This is a clear flaw in the research process.

Restatement of Argument:

With that said, many researchers have sought to separate the problems with Milgram's research paradigm from the validity of his hypothesis and the value of his findings. The result has been an effort to replicate the most important dimensions of the Milgram experiments without crossing the same ethical lines that the original researcher trespassed. According to Zegler-Hill et al. (2013), one such method replaced the use of shock therapy with the administering of a loud, unpleasant noise. This would remove both the imperative of pain-infliction and the dishonest premise at the center of participant…

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