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The following text from Prof. Dr. Werner Stangl describes the build-up to the renowned Milgram Experiments and summarizes the most important socio-psychological findings. We would like to thank the author for his friendly permission to use the text.



"One of the most well known, but at the same time controversial experiments in psychology for both ethical and test-methodological reasons is what are referred to as the Milgram Experiment. The question that the social psychologist wanted to answer in the 60s related to the facility of normal people to bow down to authority and follow clearly 'inhuman' directives. The motive for this series of experiments was supplied by the Second World War. Why were so many people prepared to subjugate themselves to the Nazi's machinery of destruction during the National Socialist regime? Was this due to a basic fault in the character of these people, or do situations occur and circumstances exist under which everyone is potentially capable of tormenting and killing other people?


At the beginning of the sixties, Yale University announced in the local newspaper in New Haven, Connecticut, that it was looking for individuals who were prepared to take part in an experiment on memory and learnability. The fact that this was nothing more than a pretext to find out the extent to which people were prepared to bow down to authority could not have been foreseen by the (non-student) participants. The volunteers were introduced to the roles they would play in the experiment by the experimenter. Two test persons were to participate in each experiment respectively.

The experimenter explained to the participants that the effects of punishment on learning would be tested in the experiment. To this end, the participants were divided up into learner and teacher by drawing straws. However, this procedure had been manipulated, because, in reality, it was foreseen that only one person would take part in each experiment. This person was then selected to become the teacher. The other person taking part, the learner, was a student of the university, something that the 'teacher' did not know. The experimenter was played by a 31 year-old high school biology teacher, the victim by a forty seven year-old bookkeeper, who had been trained for the role. He was of Irish-American decent and most observers found him to be friendly and affable.

The leader now described the experiment. The test comprises the learner learning a list of associative pairs by heart, and his partner, the teacher, testing him on it. The participants were now shown a 'shock generator' equipped with an instrument panel. The device had thirty tumbler switches. These are arranged in ascending order and range from 15 volts ('slight shock') to medium and heavy shocks up to a highest strength of 450 volts. In order clarify the nature of the machine to the test persons, the generator was fitted with a plate marked with 'SHOCK GENERATOR, TYPE ZLB, DYSON INSTRUMENT COMPANY, WALTHAM, MASS., OUTPUT 15 VOLTS-450 VOLTS', while the tumbler switches were marked with voltages ranging from 15 to 450 volts. In addition, four switches were labelled "Slight Shock", "Light Shock", "Medium Shock", "Strong Shock, "Heavy Shock", "Very Heavy Shock" and "Danger: Severe Shock", The final two switches were marked with “XXX”.

The teachers job was to now consist of flicking the switches in ascending order every time the learner provided a wrong answer. Following this explanation, the teacher followed the experimenter and his assistants into another room where an electric chair was set up. The learner sat on the chair and was strapped in. Electrodes were attached and connected to the generator. At this point in the experiment the learner pointed out that he had a weak heart. The experiment soothed the man with the comment that the shocks could be extremely painful, but would not result in any permanent tissue damage.

As already mentioned, the learner knew that he did not have to worry. In reality he was the experimenter's assistant and the teacher/learner selection procedure had been manipulated. Of course, the learner was not really attached to the generator since it was a prop. The test person himself, the teacher, suspected nothing of this. In fact, he had already been given a test shock of 45 volts. He was fully convinced that the victim in the adjoined room would be punished with electric shocks. He hears the learner reacting as if he had been hurt every time he punishes him. What the test person did not know is that these reactions had been recorded on tape in advance and that the learner's responses were given according to a standard pattern.

The real experiment now begins. At the start, the learner correctly responds several times and incorrectly a few times. For every mistake, the teacher flips the next switch as instructed and punishes his pupil with what is apparently a continually higher series of shocks. As the fifth shock is administered (75 V), the learner grunts and complains. At 150 volts, the victim asks for the experiment to be stopped. At 180 volts he cries out that he can no longer take the pain. As the experiment approaches the point where the teacher has to flip the "Danger: Sever Shock" switch, he hears the victim pounding on the wall of the adjoining room. The learner begs to be let out. The experimenter tells the test person that the reaction given also constitutes an incorrect response and demands that the teacher flip the next switch with the correspondingly high voltage.


The test persons in this experiment were comprised of a random sample and made up of the following:
  • 40% untrained and trained workers
  • 40% trade employees
  • 20% specialist trade/vocations.

The test persons reacted quite naturally to the obvious torment of their victims by showing emotion. Several protested, other sweated, shook, stammered or showed other signs of distress. However, they obeyed the instructions of the experimenter. What was conspicuous about the behavior of the test persons was that they frequently tried to take as little notice of their victims as possible, and attempted to direct all their attention to the experimenter. This probably took place to diminish the perceived inner tension evoked by the pain of the victim, making the situation more bearable by cleverly adapting their behavior.

Milgram calls this phenomenon "agreement to authority". Several participants disputed that the victims were actually receiving painful shocks, and many denied their personal responsibility, while some demanded at an advanced stage of the experiment that additional assurance be given by the experimenter that they would not be made liable for their actions. Or the responsibility was transferred to the victim with the reason that he had chosen to take part in the experiment of his own free will.

Several test persons tried to alleviate their tension by obeying, but at the same time attempting to keep the pain administered to the victim a low as possible by briefly flicking the switch on the generator, or trying to disclose the correct response to the pupil by speaking pointedly. The large majority of the test persons, more than 62 percent continued to the end of the scale (450 volts) even when some test persons had to be verbally pressed to do so by the experimenter using four increasing demands (Please continue! - Please carry on! - The experiment requires that you continue! - You must continue! - You have no choice, you must continue!)

Many test persons were convinced that they should no longer administer any more shocks to the pupil, but were incapable of carrying this through: apparently, they would have had to admit that their previous behavior was wrong if the experiment were broken off. The simple fact that they continued justified their previous behavior. Thus transforming the character of repetition into a binding factor making it difficult for the test person to show disobedience. Breaking off the experiment would have retained the character of breaking a contract since they were being paid, which was something not to be taken lightly.

Milgram points out that a social situation is also defined in terms how the participants in the situation assess themselves, which has to be respected by the other participants. This means that the refusal to obey also represents socially incorrect conduct from this perspective, since it is impossible to refuse to administer the shock without placing the experimenter's definition of himself in question.

An explanatory discussion took place at the end of the experiment in which each participant was told that the victim had not received any electric shocks. All were given the opportunity to reconcile themselves with the victim and carry out a lengthy discussion with the experimenter. The experiment was explained to the disobedient test persons in such a manner that valued their disobedience positively. To the obedient ones, emphasis was placed on their behavior and reactions being normal. After the culmination of the series of experiments, the participants received a detailed report and a questionnaire in which they were able re-express their thoughts and feelings concerning their participation in the experiment.

Milgram's experiment was repeated many times and in all cases it was possible to determine a significant measure of obedience. For instance, the experiment was repeated in Australia, Jordan, Spain and Germany. People reacted similarly in Milgram's experiments everywhere. Furthermore, it was shown that women behave just as obediently as men.

Milgram was heavily criticized for his experiment. He was accused of seriously contravening the rules of ethics in psychological research. He had aggrieved the test persons by forcing knowledge of themselves onto them that may have left several of them with a trauma. Irrespective of the fact that the test persons had been duped. Milgram countered by stating that at the post-questioning stage, 83.5 percent of the obedient test persons and 83.3 percent of the disobedient ones had expressed that gratitude for having taken part in the experiment.

Extensions to and Replications of the Experiment

In an extension to the experiment, Milgram later showed that the proportion of unconditionally obedient test persons drops off drastically (to 10%) when they have additional 'teachers' at their side and these show resistance to the experimenter (Milgram 1965). In addition, the experimenter's authority in these studies was provided by a scientist from a highly esteemed Yale University institute. Which, so-to-say, allows the participants to see themselves as contributing to an important scientific experiment per se.

Milgram himself substantiated these suppositions by further modifying the baseline of his experiment. He performed a series of studies in which the willingness of test persons to obey a member of staff from Yale University was compared with the obedience towards a scientist whose workplace was located in a derelict office building in a commercial area of Bridgeport (Connecticut). In this comparative study, Milgram ascertained that 65% of the test persons showed absolute obedience in the experiment performed by the scientist from Yale University, while 48% were obedient in the experiment carried out in Bridgeport. Which in conclusion demonstrates that appearances count, and the willingness to obey falls off if appearances are wanting.

In a further modification to the experiment, Milgram examined what happens if the experimenter is replaced by another person at the last moment. After his role in the experiment had been explained to the teacher (but before the test persons had been informed of the strength of the electric shocks to be administered), the experimenter received a mock telephone call from the lab. Another participant (the assistant to the experimenter) took over his role: The replacement acted as if it was his idea to increase the strength of the electric shocks after each error made by the pupil. He acted like the experimenter in all other respects. He pressurized the teacher into carrying on administering the electric shocks in just the same way as the experimenter had done. In this variation of the experiment, the number of absolutely obedient test persons sank to 20 percent. This proved that a sufficiently legitimate authority is capable of demanding a high level of obedience from an individual, but not a random person who attempts to slip into the role of the person of authority.

In continuing variations of the experiment, Milgram ascertained that the number of absolutely obedient persons falls to 25 percent as soon as the experimenter is located outside the room and gives his instructions by phone. Furthermore, several test persons who continued with the experiment began to cheat. This was expressed, for instance, by the teacher administering weaker electric shocks than prescribed by the experiment. Also, they failed to inform the experimenter and draw attention to the fact that they had diverted from the agreed course of the experiment. In doing this, they attempted on the one hand to meet the demands of the experimenter, but on the other, were able to abate their inner turmoil by keeping the amount of pain they administered to the other person as low as possible.

The feeling of being responsible for one's own actions diminishes if one sees oneself as a single cog in a large machine. Milgram proved this in a another version of his paradigmatic experiments. In this variation, two teachers teach the pupil. In this case, the second teacher is the real test person. His job comprises reading out the tasks and checking the correctness of the responses. In such a constellation, 92.5% of the test persons failed to hinder the other teacher, i.e. the one giving the electric shocks who administered the maximum shock possible. In the Australian replica carried out by Wesley Kilham and Leon Mann, the test persons in the role of the assistant continued until the end of the experiment significantly more frequently than in the standard one. However, the willingness to obey was clearly less here than in the experiment carried out by Milgram.

In a further modification of the experiment, Milgram ascertained that the further away his test persons were from their victim, the more willing they were to follow the instructions of the experimenter. If the test persons had eye-contact with their pupils, only 40 percent were willing to continue with the experiment, while as many as 62 percent were willing if they were 'only' able to hear the screams of their victims. The results were similar for test persons who were asked to press the pupil's arm down onto an electrified plate instead of using the more distant shock generator (30 percent)."


Distant room
Acoustic feedback
Adjoining room
Touching distance

Average maximum shock administered in volts
405
367,5
312
268,2

Percentage of wholly obedient test persons
65%
62,5%
40%
30%