AS Social Influence: Does Milgram’s study really show that situational factors can be strong enough to push ordinary people to commit harmful acts?

To answer this question, you really need to break it down into sub-questions. The sub-questions which come into my mind are

Is this a realistic experiment?

Can it be applied to real world settings?

Are his methods valid and ethical?
If you wish, you can go back to the video from the lesson showing the modern reconstruction of Milgram’s study. The links for this are here and here. Watch both parts.
There are many sources about Milgram’s study on the web. A good place to start is with Thomas Blass. He wrote a biography of Milgram and keeps a website about his work. You can listen to Thomas Blass speak here on an old edition of All In The Mind and read an article to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the experiment here.
Another good place is a lecture about Milgram’s study from the Psychology Faculty at the University of Leeds. Follow this link or go straight to the website here.
Milgram’s study has recently come under scrutiny from Gina Perry. You can listen to an interview with Gina Perry on All In The Mind from last December here: wind 18 minutes into the programme. If that doesn’t work, you can try accessing it from this link. There’s an article which makes some of the same points here. Gina Perry made a documentary for Australian Radio which you can download from here. You have to be patient but it will tell you some very surprising things about Milgram’s study which have only recently come to light.
On the specific question of application to real world settings, make sure you have looked at the text book extract on page 10 of your skeleton notes. You can find some good evaluation on pages 158 and 159 of the AS Complete Companion text book.
Follow these suggestions or do some searching for yourself. What do you think?


  1. !n 12C, we are starting to get interested in his sampling. We’ve got a question about him excluding students and a question about why only males. More generally, we are thinking about the right to withdraw. I’ve suggested that you can see this study is a test of whether people are willing to exercise that right. To help us focus on that question, here is a link to the original advert. In my mind, this goes with the radio documentary linked above to give us a feel of what the original experiment felt like.

  2. I watched the recreation of Milgrams study and was horrified to see that 9/12 of the participants went all the way to 450 volts, even after hearing the reactions from the learners. To see some of the ‘teachers’ reactions to these outbursts of pain was shocking – many of them remain cold faced and carried on, which I found horrific. However, the study is imperative in showing our human nature and reactions to pressure, which we experience at all stages throughout our lives; as children, teenagers especially, and adults too. It was interesting too see how the majority of the participant population reacted to this pressure, however the study was unethically conducted, yet again. It seems to be that there’s no real resolution to finding the balance for a good study to be ethical as well. The thing that hit home to me was how people found it so easy to hear cries of pain and simply ignore them, and administer higher shocks; that shows something unfortunate and somewhat upsetting about our human nature.

  3. Lauren R · · Reply

    Orne and Holland suggested that the reason why participants obeyed so completely was not because they were obedient but that’s because how you should behave in an experiment. They concluded that Milgrams study lacks in validity as it doesn’t tell us about human obedience behaviour in general but only how willing participants are to obey in experiments.

  4. Katie and Nicole · · Reply

    Does it really show situational factors can be strong enough?
    According to social psychologist Lee Ross, situational causation can only happen when everybody in a situation does the same thing. This only occurred in Milgram’s study where 2 confederates joined the original teacher and refused to give electric shocks which then reduced the amount of participants who gave the maximum shock to 10%. However, we think Milgram’s study still shows the influence of the situational factors, just more strongly in some variations rather than others.

    Are his methods valid and reliable?
    Gina Perry would certainly say no due to her findings from interviews with original participants from the Milgram’s study and from looking at Milgram’s unpublished papers. She thought Milgram’s presented the results in a skewed way because she found obedience in the various situations actually ranged from 93% to 0%. She also found the amount of urges and probes given by the authority figure differed with each participant. From looking at this, we think the results may lack validity. However, we are unsure whether the results are reliable as recent studies who reconstructed Milgram’s study found similar findings.

  5. Milgram’s study has been applied to past events such as the holocaust to question whether nazi criminals played the role of the “teacher” in the experiment, as they were obiding the strict instructions of nazi rules (experimenter) and that they just assumed buffers to lessen the impact of their actions on holocaust victims (learner).
    Alternatively, James Waller, chair of holocaust and genocide studies at Keene state college argued that Milgram’s laboratory experiment doesn’t correspond well to the holocaust events.
    1. The ethical issues involved with carrying out a psychology study ensured that all participants were made aware that no physical or psychological harm would be caused. Whereas holocaust perpetrators were fully aware of the harm they were inflicting.
    2. Also, the laboratory experiments were not led by racist/ fascist motives unlike that of the holocaust perpetrators., where they displayed “intense devaluation” of their victims over a lifetime.
    3. The participants in Milgram’s study at some point expressed anguish and distress due to the apparent harm they believed they were causing to the “learner”. On the other hand, the holocaust perpetrators had a clear goal, the final solution, so we’re evidently fully aware of their actions,
    4. Finally, the laboratory experiment was only an hour long so arguably didn’t have the time to contemplate the implications of what they were doing, whereas the holocaust lastend years, providing plenty of time for perpetrators to assess their morals.

  6. Charley · · Reply

    Did Stanley Milgrams obedience experiment prove anything?
    There are many objections about whether Milgrams study proved anything for the long term knowledge of human obedience. However this isn’t the most interesting part.
    Gina Perry studied the ethics behind Milgrams experiments, tracking down several of Milgrams original participants, his relatives, his assistants and collaborators and their relatives.
    Milgram stated that he had provided his participants with a debrief, although this is true for some of his participants (the most distressed), 3/4 left the laboratory without any form of debrief at all. The 1/4 that did, didn’t receive any form of the truth anyway. Many lefted confused and over 50 yrs later were still unnerved. A portion of participants only learned the truth through letters months afterwards – others appear to have never actually been told.
    If this was all Milgram did, his findings would still be accurate, HOWEVER Perry found that Milgram had added false information in his papers/articles. Milgram stressed the idea of uniformity – each time a subject protested, the experimenter would provide a series of prompts that had been decided before the whole experiment and would be the same in each variation. By listening to the tapes Perry found that the experimenter would improvise, roam further off script and coerce participants to continue. Inconsistency in the standard experiments meant the line between obedience and disobedience shiffed from participant to participant and variation to variation.
    In many personal letters, Milgram stated that he had significant doubts about his own work.

  7. Lucy S · · Reply

    In the reconstruction video of Millgram’s study, the words ‘greater good’ were used to describe the reasoning for the participants continuing to administer the shocks. This for me shows how the participants felt a certain obligation towards science, to the point of needing to conform with everyone else in the experiment; the professor was prompting them to continue, and it would have seemed to them like they were the only one protesting. This appeals to our need as humans to conform and obey to a legitimate authority figure(the professor). Also mentioned in the video was the fact that the participant felt that responsibility was shared; despite the fact that they were the ones administering the extremely painful shocks, they didn’t believe themselves to be entirely to blame. This study definitely shows how situational factors are strong enough to push ordinary people to commit harmful acts.

  8. Are his methods valid?
    The highly controlled laboratory study that Milgram described actually involved a large degree of improvisation and variation not just between conditions but from one subject to another. The number and extremity of prompts was improvised by the experimenter and varied with each participant including one where the participant refused and switched the machine off leading to the experimenter switching it back on and demanding that they continue, whilst others were given prompts in a much more robotic fashion. Instead of sticking to the four verbal commands described in accounts of the experimental protocol, Williams (the experimenter in the room) often abandoned the script and commanded some subjects 25 times and more to keep going.

  9. The quality of input today from both groups has been superb. It has helped me to shape my views and to some extent modify them. The thing I have found myself discussing and explaining is how much Milgram stacks the pressure on to the participant. There is the setting, the demands of science, the experimenter’s white coat. Several people have picked up that the experimenter departed from the script and really harassed the participants. That emerges from Gina Perry’s work. It seems to me that in this situation, it is almost inevitable that the participant will get so confused that he will stop thinking for himself and simply enter the agentic state. I’d argue that this means that the study is realistic in the sense that at least some of the people in it are doing it for real and not putting on an act but that it doesn’t tell us much about real life situations which are much messier and more confusing than the one which Milgram imagines and then realises.

    A couple of points link to this idea. The first is the one about students. I have sometimes wondered why Milgram specifically excluded students from his volunteer participants. I think the answer is that they would be less likely to conform because they are more used to and therefore less impressed by the authority of the university. Milgram would not be able to achieve with them the pressure which he applies to other participants. A further point is about what Psychology was like 50 years ago. People tended to see Psychology as something slightly mysterious which sought to present people with hidden truths about themselves. Even today, I still meet people who, when I tell them that I teach Psychology, think I will be able to read their minds and discover some hidden secret about them. So I see Milgram as a psychologist who performs a trick to show us something surprising and counter-intuitive about ourselves. To some extent, Milgram’s participants are just playing along with him.

    On the other hand, I can think of situations where Milgram’s scenario is relevant. One group today talked about the novel “Regeneration” where a psychologist sits by while a patient is given electric shock therapy. That seems to be a situation where the power of authority – the patient is a soldier in the First World War – and science overwhelm an individual. In connection with Milgram’s study, I always remember what one of the teachers who taught me at school said about his father in the Second World War. This teacher’s father had been a jeep driver whose job was to ferry senior officers around the battlefields as the allied armies moved across Europe and into Germany at the end of the war. He stressed how confusing and disorientating war is. Sometimes, he had to drive his jeep very quickly out of places which he realised were enemy territory. Milgram may therefore have done something very clever in presenting people with a scenario which matches what a war is like in that it is confusing and disorientating, making obedience and the agentic state almost a necessity. That said, the points made by Beth above about why Milgram’s study is different from war and genocide seem to me to be valid.

    There are two things finally that have changed my view about Milgram. Firstly, I am really struggling with the ethics. The standard line is that Milgram did some unethical things but it was worth it because it tells us something about obedience which might save some lives and improve others and because he did at least debrief them afterwards. It’s clear from the Gina Perry research that they often did not get the debrief until months later. One of the people in the radio documentary linked above describes going to ask a neighbour who was an electrician whether it is possible to survive a 450V shock. In this respect, the reconstruction you saw where participants are told straightaway that the shocks were fake is different from Milgram’s study. It seems to me that Milgram’s study is basically a test of whether people will exercise a right to withdraw, a right which has been only hazily and imperfectly explained to them at the start of the study. There is something disturbing about this central premiss of Milgram’s study. I don’t think he should have done it nor do I think subsequent studies should have replicated it.

    The other idea which has changed for me is that the study is really about the ability to resist obedience. It seems to me remarkable with so much stacked against them that anybody resisted at all. A couple of groups have pointed out that this is dispositional. There is something in people’s character and temperament which makes them stand up to authority. This is an idea which we’ll explore through the locus of control in our next sub-topic. In that sense, Milgram’s study does not give us the dark picture of human nature which is often portrayed but gives us something optimistic about human nature. It also tells us something important about obedience itself. Obedience is not the dark and malign force which is manufactured in Milgram’s study but is rather the glue which keeps social groups together and establishes some sort of order. Through the experience of living harmoniously and at times obediently with others, we learn the difference between right and wrong. It is an understanding of that difference which led many, perhaps most, of Milgram’s participants to disobey.

    Thank you everyone. It’s been a really interesting day’s work.

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