Stanley Milgram’s small but notorious experiment on obeying authority grew out of the trial of Adolph Eichmann in the early 1960s. After briefly recapping the experiment, we will look at its structure, the ethical concerns it raises, and its strengths and weaknesses.
Milgram, a social psychologist at Yale University, heard of Eichmann’s defense of his assignation of Jews and other victims to death camps: he was just “following orders” from his superiors (Lane, 2011). To determine if such monsters could be created through orders, Milgram devised an experiment to see if otherwise decent people would comply with unconscionable orders from authority. He gathered 40 teachers who would, under order of a researcher, give dangerous electrical shocks to someone. The shocks gradually increased in intensity, causing the recipient to scream in pain and pound on the wall, begging for it to stop. The researchers would insist that the shocks continue to a potentially fatal level. Only after a teacher refused four orders did the researchers stop insisting and end the experiment (Maggie, 2008).
Of course, this would be monumentally unethical had anyone really been shocked. But, a wall separated the shocker and the shockee. The teachers did not know that the screams were from a tape recorder, and no one really got shocked. Still, one must wonder what lasting effects this would have on the teachers, believing they had brutalized someone, or that they were capable of such acts. Such psychological stress might well violate the urgings of Babbie (2013) that no harm comes to the subjects (p. 20). However, gaining insight into oneself from such an experiment can form a positive memory. Subsequent surveys of participants revealed an overwhelmingly positive response to having participated (Milgram, 1974).
Structurally, the experiment had no control group or pre- and post-testing. It most closely resembles a one-shot case study where “the researcher measures a single group of subjects on a dependent variable following the administration of some experimental stimulus” (Babbie, 2013, p. 104).
The study attained its goals of causing people to rethink their own beliefs about what they would do under orders. Many of the teachers and psychologists surveyed prior to the experiment did not believe people would administer potentially fatal levels of electroshock (Milgram, 1965). They were proven wrong. (These surveys were not pre-tests of subjects but an effort to see what people thought.)
However, the experiment had some weaknesses. Babbie points out repeatedly that current events can affect perceptions during research, and surely these educators knew of the Eichmann trials happening at the time. They might have even suspected their relation to the experiment. Also, Milgram had no control group. He could have set up a test in which the person insisting on the shocks was person of no perceived authority – a student intern perhaps, or simple printed instructions on how to administer the shocks. This would give results for the behavior where no authority was present. However, such experiments have been done to address this (Blass, 1991, p. 400). Finally, one might question how well the sample was chosen. Although a sample of more than 30 is good enough for some meaningful statistics, 40 seems a small number on which to base beliefs about human nature. To counter this weakness, the experiment has been replicated by further researchers in many cultures (ibid, p. 407).
Babbie, E. (2013). Social research counts. Wadsworth, Cengage Learning: Belmont, CA.
Blass, T. (1991). Understanding behavior in the Milgram obedience experiment: The role of personality, situations, and their interactions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(3), 398–413. Retrieved from http://www.stanleymilgram.com/pdf/understanding%20behavoir.pdf
Lane, K. (2011, November 9). Guest blogger. Hannah Arendt Center, Bard College. Retrieved November 14, 2012, from http://www.hannaharendtcenter.org/?p=2541
Maggie. (2008, September 7). Top 10 unethical psychological experiments. Listverse. Retrieved from http://listverse.com/2008/09/07/top-10-unethical-psychological-experiments/
Milgram, S. (1965). Some conditions of obedience and disobedience to authority. Human Relations, 18(1), 57–76.
Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority; an experimental view. Harpercollins. Retrieved from class notes at http://www.nickoh.com/emacs_files/psychology/ss_dir/milgram1963.html