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AS Psychology - Milgram's Experiments

Updated on February 28, 2013
An illustration of Stanley Milgram's famous experiment , conducted in July 1961
An illustration of Stanley Milgram's famous experiment , conducted in July 1961 | Source

Why Stanley Milgram?

Milgram's famous social influence experiments are vital to know for any respectable psychologist or psychology student. His experiments gave us an insight into the mentality of the human mind that experiments in the modern day just cannot do.

Ethical reforms as a society have lead us to believe that such extreme experiments are not morally permissible, since participants risk being traumatised.

There are 3 Main Types of Social Influence you need to Know About

Compliance - this is where a person will change his ideas, beliefs or behaviour in order to conform to the majority. Identification with the majority is desirable and people will change themselves publicly but not privately in order to fit in or gain approval. Thus, compliance is an 'outward acceptance' and does not mean that the person actually believes in what he is expressing. Compliance is seen very clearly in children and teenagers, wherein they dress alike, speak alike and think alike in order to form a close group.

Internalisation - this is where a person will change his behaviour not just to fit in or gain approval from the majority but because he has genuinely changed his opinion on something. They change themselves both publicly and privately, outwardly and inwardly.

Obedience to Authority - A more direct form of social influence is obedience to an authority, where the individual has little say in changing or not because he is forced (through the fear of punishment) to conform to a behaviour.

Milgram's Study of Obedience - Procedure

In 1961, the psychologist Stanley Milgram recruited 40 male participants to take part in his study of obedience. He conducted this experiment in response to a recent trial of a German Nazi and those serving in the German Army (particularly SS) in WW2, who had performed atrocious acts out of 'obedience' to prisoners.

Every participant was offered $4.50 and were told they would receive this money even if they discontinued participation. Along with the 40 participants there were two confederates, one 'experimenter' in a lab coat (but not a real doctor) and a man (a 47 year old accountant) that played the role of the 'learner' - a man who was to pretend he was being electrocuted.

The participants and the confederates' names were put in a 'random' draw that was designed so that the participants always ended up as the 'teacher' - the administrators of the electric shocks.

The learner then went into another room and was asked a series of questions, if he hesitated or answered incorrectly, the teacher-participant was told to administer increasingly strong electric shocks to the learner. The participants did not know that the learner was an actor pretending to be in pain.

The learner was told to say mainly wrong answers so that the participant had to shock him.

Up to 300 volts the learner would take the shocks in silence, but when 300 volts was reached he would pound at the door. After 315 volts, the learner would go silent.

If a participant would object to further electrocute the participant, the researcher was equipped with preprepared encouraging and authoritative states such as 'it is essential you continue' and 'this is important scientific research'.

Milrams Study - The Findings

Before the Study, Milgram asked college students, colleagues and psychiatrists how they predicted the study would go, and how far the people thought they would go before refusing to shock the learners.

The majority of people asked predicted that most of the participants would refuse to obey the experimenter when they found out that they had to shock other people at all.

Psychiatrists said that very few people would go over 150 volts and only 1 in 1000 would go to the full 450 volts.

What Actually Happened
In reality, every single participant shocked the learner at least 300 volts, and 65% of people administered 450 volts - marked 'danger - severe shock'.


The findings of the experiment showed that people at the time were very obedient to authority figures, or in this case, people who looked like authority figures. Even though the task was perceived by most people, the trust they had in someone wearing a lab coat telling them that it was okay to go on was enough to continue doing it.

This suggests that it's not evil people that commit crimes/atrocities, but that people in general are very prone to following orders from authorities. This creates some justification for the actions of many Nazis under the Hitler regime.

A Video Explanation of a Similar Remake of Milgram's Experiments

What do you think about the morality of Stanley Milgram's 1961 experiments?

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    • Philanthropy2012 profile image

      DK 5 years ago from London

      Thank you!

      I didn't know that Derren Brown had also done this experiment, I'll check it out - I hope it's better than his lottery guessing!

    • sparkster profile image

      Sparkster Publishing 5 years ago from United Kingdom

      Great article, I love this experiment. It was also carried out once again recently by Derren Brown although real shocks were not administered, the participants just believed they were.