The Milgram experiment was a scientific experiment first described by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram in his 1974 book Obedience to Authority; An Experimental View. It was intended to measure the willingness of a subject to obey an authority who instructs the subject to do something that may conflict with the subject's personal conscience.
The method of the experiment was this: The subject and an actor claiming to be another subject are told by the experimenter that they are going to participate in an experiment to test the effectiveness of punishment on learning behavior. Two slips of paper marked "teacher" are handed to the subject and actor, and the actor claims that his says "learner", so the subject believes that his role has been chosen randomly. Both are then given a sample 45-volt electric shock from an apparatus attached to a chair into which the actor is strapped. The teacher is given simple memory tasks to give to the learner and instructed to administer a shock by pressing a button each time the learner makes a mistake. After each mistake, the voltage is raised by 15 volts. The "teacher" subject is not told that there are no actual shocks being given to the actor, who feigns discomfort. At 150 volts, the actor requests that the experiment end, and is told by the experimenter "The experiment requires that you continue. Please go on." or similar words. He continues, and feigns greater discomfort, considerable pain, and concerns for his own safety as the shocks continue. If the teacher subject becomes reluctant, he is instructed that the experimenter takes all responsibility for the results of the experiment and the safety of the learner, and that the experiment requires that he continue.
In Milgram's first set of experiments, 60% of teachers administered the experiment's final 450-volt shock, though many were quite uncomfortable in doing so. No subject stopped before the 300-volt level. The experiment has been repeated by other psychologists around the world with similar results. Variations have been performed to test for variables in the experimental setup. For example, subjects are much more likely to be obedient when the experimenter is physically present than when the instructions are given over telephone.
The experiment raised questions about the ethics of scientific experimentation itself because of the extreme emotional stress suffered by the subjects (even though it was brought on by their own free actions). Most modern scientists would consider the experiment unethical today, though it resulted in valuable insights into human psychology.
In the article The Perils of Obedience (Milgram 1974), he wrote:
- The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous import, 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' strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects' 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.
- Milgram, S. (1974), Obedience to Authority; An Experimental View
- Milgram, S. (1974), The Perils of Obedience, Harper's Magazine
- Abridged and adapted from Obedience to Authority