It is 18 June 1961.
You are reading the New Haven Register on Sunday, and an advert catches your eye:
WE WILL PAY YOU $4.00 FOR ONE HOUR OF YOUR TIME.
This is 1961, that is not a bad deal. You read on.
The advert is recruiting men from the New Haven area for a study into memory and learning at Yale University. Interested parties are to apply to Professor Stanley Milgram’s office and will be contacted with further details. You take a pair of scissors from the draw and neatly cut out the response form.
When you arrive at Professor Milgram’s elegant Yale University laboratory, you are greeted by a researcher in a grey technician’s coat. He leads you to a room where another participant is already waiting — a professional looking man comfortably settled into middle age. He smiles at you.
The researcher clears his throat to attract your attention. Very little is understood, he says, about the effect of punishment on learning — for instance, how much is best?
He explains that for the experiment one of you will be the teacher and the other will be the learner. He asks if either of you would prefer a role. Your fellow shakes his head; he does not mind. In turn, you shrug your shoulders.
The researcher nods and produces a hat. He asks you to put your hand in and choose a slip of paper.
Perhaps some relief; no learning, no punishment, $4 for practically nothing.
You are both led to another room. Inside is a chair, coiled with wires that sprout into electrodes. Leather straps are fixed to the arms and legs. Necessary to prevent excessive movement from the electric shocks, apparently.
The learner is strapped into the chair. Before the electrodes are attached, a gel is applied to their skin — to avoid blisters and burns.
The learner is now clearly nervous and asks how strong the shocks will be. The researcher assures him that although they can be extremely painful, they cause no permanent tissue damage.
You are taken next door, leaving the learner alone, strapped to the chair.
On a table is a heavy-looking boxy device with a row of switches. Beneath each switch is noted its voltage. Beneath these are a series of labels that describe the shocks.
Slight Shock. Moderate Shock. Strong Shock. Very Strong Shock. Intense Shock. Extreme Intensity Shock. Danger: Severe Shock.
The final two switches are simply marked “XXX”.
Your task is simple. You will test the learner’s ability to remember a list of word pairs and help reinforce their learning.
The rooms are connected by a microphone and speakers. First, you will read aloud a list of word-pairs for the learner to memorise. To test their memory, you will then read out one word from a pair and give four options. One of these is the correct paired-word, the others are distractors.
The learner has to choose the paired-word. If he is correct, you move on. If he is incorrect, you announce this, state the level of shock he will receive, then flip the corresponding switch.
Each time they are incorrect, you will move on to the next switch. This will allow the researcher to understand the correct amount of punishment to facilitate learning.
To understand the punishment, you are given a sample shock. It hurts.
That, the researcher says, is a 45-volt shock. The third level on your row of switches.
The experiment begins. Sometimes the learner is correct and you continue with the list. Sometimes they are incorrect and you give them their shock.
After the latest incorrect answer, you reach out for a switch. The label reads “225 volts — Intense Shock”. You hesitate and turn to the researcher. He looks up from a clipboard and says in a firm tone, “Please continue.”
You flip the switch.
Milgram and his shock generation device (n.d.)
Hopefully you’ve stayed with me through my foray into creative writing.
It’s based on a real experiment performed by Stanley Milgram. Though ‘real’ does come with a caveat.
Because Milgram’s experiment was a trick. The “researcher” and “learner” were really paid actors, there were no electric shocks, and the experiment wasn’t even investigating memory.
So what was the point of this hoax?
Milgram’s true intention was to study obedience to authority. In the wake of the atrocities of Nazi Germany, many defended themselves by declaring that they had “only been following orders”. Indeed in 1961, this defence was used by Adolf Eichmann during his trial in Israel for crimes against humanity during the Holocaust.
Milgram wanted to know how far obedience to authority would be followed. Was this a poor attempt to excuse the inexcusable? Was it explainable as a defect in certain groups of people? Or was there something darker and more universal at play?
He predicted that the national character of the American participants he recruited would impact his work — notions of rugged individualism would surely protect against blind obedience and the banality of evil.
Further, he surveyed the opinions of other psychologists. His students predicted that 1% of people would continue to the very end. His colleagues in the department thought that few would go beyond “Very Strong Shock”. A group of psychiatrists believed that only one in a thousand people would flip the final switch.
These predictions were too optimistic.
“Please continue.” “The experiment requires that you continue.” “It is absolutely essential that you continue.” “You have no other choice, you must go on.” The prompts given to the teacher if they resisted shocking the learner.
Every single one of Milgram’s participants continued until 300 volts — the final level of “Intense Shock”. 65% went all the way to the final switch.
A far cry from one in a thousand.
So why did some participants stop at 300 volts? In the original experiment, this was the point at which the ‘learner’ pounded on the wall. For five of Milgram’s forty participants, this was enough for them to insist that they would not go on.
Notwithstanding the size of this fraction, perhaps this indicated that participants would be less willing to continue if the learner was humanised to them.
Milgram continued his research by tweaking the circumstances of his experiment. A well-known example was set up so that the teacher would be able to hear the learner grunt with pain, beg for them to stop, and protest that they had a heart condition. Finally, they would go silent; no longer responding to either prompt or shock.
In that form 62.5% of teachers flipped the final switch.
In the most extreme form of Milgram’s experiment, he had the learner in the same room as the teacher, close enough that they could touch.
And yet 30% still made it to the end.
If the teacher said that the learner did not want to go, they were told: "Whether the learner likes it or not you must go on until he has learned all the word pairs correctly."
So if you scratch the surface, can you find a psychopath in us all?
Milgram’s experiments suggested this was likely not the case. So it’s not all bad news.
Milgram reported two notable findings. Firstly, the rates of obedience that ran contrary to the predictions he and his peers had made.
Beyond this, however, Milgram reported that his participants experienced “extraordinary tension”. Participants showed many signs of stress — sweating, trembling, stuttering, groaning, and so on. Milgram was particularly struck by how many of his participants laughed — one went at great length in his post experiment interview to insist that he was not sadistic and had not enjoyed inflicting pain nor thought it was funny.
Three participants were reported to have uncontrollable seizures. One participant’s seizure was “so violently convulsive that it was necessary to call the experiment to a halt”.
Truth be told, I can’t picture a seizure that wouldn’t stop an experiment.
And that serves to highlight a legacy of Milgram’s work that he had not envisioned: an ethical reconsideration of psychological research practices. The reaction to Milgram’s work (and later that of Zimbardo’s infamous Stanford Prison Experiment) led to a wider conversation on how ethical research might be carried out in psychology.
Let me assure you; it’s nicer these days.
A modern reprisal of Milgram’s study by Slater and colleagues performed the experiment in an “immersive virtual environment”. Despite being aware that the ‘learner’ wasn’t real and that the experiment was fully simulated, participants still showed signs of stress and discomfort.
Video gamers might be aware of this phenomenon as “pixel guilt”.
Though not the headline takeaway from Milgram’s work, it is perhaps reassuring to know that we are not all surrounded by psychopaths. Though maybe it is scant consolation if these ‘reasonable’ people might still do something horrible, just because they were told to.
A still from Milgram's film Obedience (1965)
In a previous article, I talked about the importance of replication in science. A 1999 analysis by Thomas Blass indicated that replications of Milgram’s work largely support his findings. Blass also found that Milgram’s American participants were in line with the global average.
Further, and to this writer most interestingly, he noted that the effect was undiminished over time.
And there is little reason to believe that that has changed since. Although modern replications have been limited in their scope due to the ethical concerns of the original (e.g. a study by Jerry Burger limited participants to 150 volts), they still yield similar results.
Outside of the world of research, Milgram’s experiment has been replicated in TV productions. A French show called La Jeu de la Mort (The Game of Death) told its participants that they were involved in a game show pilot. Sixty-four out of the eighty went all the way to the final shock.
Even though they were told it was a test run and they could not win any money.
UK mentalist Derren Brown included it as part of his show, The Heist. You can follow the link to see how his attempt went.
Milgram concluded that his experiments unveiled a disturbing side of human nature. He argued that so called civilised societies were not so distant from the atrocities of history as they might believe. Nor could they be so easily explained as the failing of a certain class or nationality of person.
He believed we should stay vigilant against a malevolent authority and the acts that might be performed in its name.
The weight of research that has followed his work, and no less the stories of history, suggest we should heed his warning.
But is there another side to this infamous research? Some researchers claim that Milgram’s experiments do not tell us what we think they do. They claim that if you dig a little deeper, you might find some questions rise to the surface.
And we will cover those in part two.
Want to know more about psychology as a science? Check out my Experimental Psychology 101 series.
Baumrind, D. (1964). Some thoughts on ethics of research: After reading Milgram's "Behavioral Study of Obedience." American Psychologist, 19(6), 421–423.
Blass, T. (1999). The Milgram Paradigm After 35 Years: Some Things We Now Know About Obedience to Authority. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 29(5), 955-978.
Burger, J. M. (2009). Replicating Milgram: Would people still obey today? American Psychologist, 64(1), 1.
Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral Study of Obedience. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4), 371–378.
Milgram, S. (1965). Some conditions of obedience and disobedience to authority. Human Relations, 18(1), 57–76.
Slater, M., Antley, A., Davison, A., Swapp, D., Guger, C., Barker, C., ... & Sanchez-Vives, M. V. (2006). A Virtual Reprise of the Stanley Milgram Obedience Experiments. PloS one, 1(1), e39.
Greenwood J. from Milgram, S. (1965) Obedience [Still from film]. Alexander Street Press. https://behavioralscientist.org/how-would-people-behave-in-milgrams-experiment-today/
Stanley Milgram with his shock generation device (n.d.) [photograph]. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/blogs/percolator/the-secret-milgram-experiments