In 1963 Stanley Milgram conducted one of the most well known and controversial experiments in psychology.
He wanted to understand why, during World War Two, “normal” citizens obeyed orders to do horrific things they wouldn’t normally do. Were they evil or were there any other factors involved.
Advertising in a newspaper he requested help from the public for a study about memory and learning. He would pay them $4.50 for an hour of their time. There were 40 male participants selected between the age of 20-50.
On arrival at the lab participants met a confederate named Mr Wallace and an experimenter in a grey lab coat. They believed that Mr Wallace was another genuine participant in the experiment. The two drew lots to decide who would be the teacher and who would be the learner. This was rigged so that Mr Wallace was always the learner and the participant was always the teacher.
The confederate, Mr Wallace, and true participant would then be taken into the room where the participant would see Mr Wallace strapped to a chair with electrodes. Mr Wallace was not really going to be shocked but the participant believed he was.
The participant, the teacher, was then taken into another room where he would ask Mr Wallace, the learner, a series of questions relating two word pairs. If the learner answered incorrectly than the teacher should administer a shock, this would increase after every incorrect answer. In front of the participant was a machine to control the level of shock with 15 V on the left, labelled slight shock, increasing in 15 V all the way up to 450 V, labelled XXX.
When the shock was applied a recorded response was played and observations of the participant were made. As the shocks increased so did the response. At 315 V the learner could be heard banging on the wall and screaming to be let out and for the experiment to stop. From then on, after every shock, there was no response. The experiment instructed the participant to treat silence as an incorrect answer.
Should the participant refuse to continue and want the experiment to end the experimenter would reply with 1 of 4 prods:
- “Please continue” or “Please go on”
- “The experiment requires that you continue”
- “It is absolutely essential that you continue”
- “You have no other choice, you must go on”
The results of this experiment shocked the scientific community. Before the study Milgram asked some of his students what they expected to happen. They predicted that no. more than 3% would continue up the maximum of 450 V.
No participant in his original study stopped below 300 V and 65% continued up to the full 450 V. Some participants even gave multiple shocks at 450 V when instructed to continue. Observations were also recorded and these included sings of stress, nervous laughter, biting nails, sweating etc…
At the end of the experiment participants were fully debriefed of the original intention of the study and 84% had admitted that they felt glad to have participated and learnt something of value about themselves. Milgram concluded that this showed that “ordinary” people would obey orders to hurt people even if it means acting against their own set of morals.
Orne and Holland (1966) argue that Milgram’s experiment lacks internal validity and participants believed that the experiment was set up. This could lead to demand characteristics and therefore we don’t get a true reflection of obedience from he results. This is supported by Perry (2013) when she listens to the recording ion the participants responses. She said many of them expressed their disbelief that the confederate was really being shocked. Milgram himself argues this and says he believes at least 70% of his participants believed they were administering real shocks.
Sheridan and King (1972) support Milgram with a replication of his study using puppies and real shocks. From their results they found that 54% of male participants reached the maximum of 450 V and 100% of female participants.
As Milgram’s experiment was a laboratory experiment we would tend to argue it could have good internal validity and can sow cause and effect due to its controls, standardisation and replicability. But some argue that the experimenter would often go off script.
The external validity of this experiment is also highly debated as it was a laboratory experiment and lacked ecological validity as this was not a real life scenario. However, others argue this point as the research focus was on the relationship of the participant and authority figure and that is what is seen in his experiment.
Hofling et al (1966) devised an experiment whereby nurses, on a night shift, were given instructions over the phone by an unknown doctor “Dr Smith” to give an unknown drug “Astroten” to a patient called Mr James. They were told to give 20mg to the patient when on the label of the drug gives maximum dosage at 10mg. Dr Smith also told the nurses that he was in a hurry and would sign the authorisation later when he came to see the patient. Nurses have strict guidelines and should never take orders over the phone and should be mindful of drugs they do not know and dosage limits. Even with this 21 out of 22 nurses went to give this fake drug to the patient.
The drug was a placebo and harmless but this shows the social pressure and power of those as authoritarian figures and how people may obey even with strict guidelines. The experiment was highly standardised and reliable with the orders over the phone followed by a script. This experiment was compared to a control group of 33 nurses in a different hospital and a questionnaire on how they would respond to the request. 31 out of the 33 said they would not comply with the instructions. We also have to be mindful about social desirability bias when using questionnaires.
Rank and Jacobson (1977) argue that Hofling’s experiment also lacks ecological validity as this is not a real life situation. They ran a similar study but this time the doctors gave orders in person and a drug they were used to was used, valium. So when doctors asked nurses to give 3 times the recommended dosage only 2 out of 18 nurses obeyed. Nurses were stopped before they could give the drugs to any patients.
Further supporting evidence comes from a French TV show called “Le Jeu de la Mort” which means “The Game of Death”. This was a game show that included the replication of Milgrams study. Participants believed they were taking part in a pilot show “La Zone Extreme” and paid to give shocks which they believed to be real. 80% of participants administered a maximum of 460 V.
Social Identity Theory
Another reason why participants obeyed may have been due to social identity theory. This states that obedience can be influenced by how individuals identify with a group or idea. Participants in Milgram’s experiment may have obeyed as they identified with the experimenter and science in general. They look up to the community and are more likely to get involved and potentially obey. Obedience fell when the participants identified less with the experiment and more with the victim, Mr Wallace.
The first three prods used by the experimenter encouraged the participant to identify with the experiment for example “The experiment enquiries you to continue”. The final prod “You have not other choice, you must go on” demands obedience and no participant continued after this prod was used. This shows that when the participants were not encouraged to identify with the experiment they did not obey.
Milgram’s experiment is a hallmark to discuss ethical issues and was one of the few experiments that brought about change to ethical guidelines. Participants were clearly decided in the true intention of the experiment. They were also deceived in both the lottery at the start and the belief that the shocks were real. Participants were also not given the right to withdraw and were encouraged to continue when they wanted to stop. Finally the participants were not protected from harm as the observations showed many signs of stress during the experiment. Participants were fully debriefed at the end of the experiment and many were happy to have taken part.
Diana Baumrind (1964) argues this deception of participants betrays the trust in the general public and is damaging to the field of psychology. This means participants are unlikely to want to volunteer in future experiments.