In the early 1960’s, Stanley Milgram conducted a study of obedience to authority figures that would eventually impact Social Psychology forever. He was particularly interested in how and why Nazi workers were willing to kill thousands of innocent people. This helped him create an experiment that looked at obedience to authority figures.
Milgram had 40 participants, all male, and ages that ranged from 20 to 50 years. The participants would be paired with another ‘participant’, who was actually a confederate that knew the purpose of the experiment. The confederate would always be the learner, and the participant would always be the teacher.
The learners job was to ‘memorize’ a list of word pairs. The learner was placed in a room separate from the teacher, and was strapped to a chair with electrodes (see picture). The teacher was placed in front of a switch board apparatus, which would administer shocks at different levels to the learner. The board had increasing voltage from 15 volts (slight shock) to 450 volts (danger-severe shock).
The teacher would list a word, and the learners objective was to answer with the words correct pairing. When the learner answered incorrectly, the teacher was ordered to give a shock, and increasing the amount of voltage each time. While the learner wasn’t actually feeling any shocks whatsoever, the teacher believed he was experiencing this pain. There was also an actor in the room with the teacher who was dressed as an experimenter in a lab coat, telling them that they must continue and that they have no choice but to continue.
Surprisingly, 2/3 of the participants continued to the highest shock, 450 volts. 100% of the participants continued to at least 300 volts.
These results suggest than when people are given orders, even when they believe it is causing someone else pain, they are likely to obey. This is true especially when the orders are coming from someone who they perceive as an authority figure.
There were many different variations of this experiment conducted by Milgram. See below for some videos and helpful links/sources to learn more!
- Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-378.