Milgram’s Research on Obedience to Authority

This article reviews and summarizes Stanley Milgram’s empirical research on obedience to authority conducted in 1961. Milgram’s experiments examined the participants’ obedience behavior under instructions of an authoritative person who asked participants to give potentially dangerous levels of electric shock to a stranger. This research is “one of the most inspired contributions in the field of social psychology” (Russell, 2011, p. 140). Unexpected findings in Milgram’s research stimulated more studies on human behaviors of obedience and atrocities. Two significant researches after Milgram’s experiments are Philip Zimbardo’s Standard prison experiment and Jerry Burger’s replication of Milgram’s obedience research. Additional studies supported Milgram’s findings in the original research.

Milgram’s Original Research

Milgram’s decision to study obedience to authority was motivated by his thoughts as a Jew about the Holocaust, his career goal in social psychology, and inspirations from Solomon Asch’s conformity experiments (Blass, 2009). In 1961 Milgram received a grant from National Science Foundation (NSF) and built the laboratory and equipment for this study. One objective of Milgram’s study was to answer the research question about people’s willingness to obey blindly, “how far will a person go in inflicting severe pain on a stranger when instructed to do so by an authority figure?” (Benjamin & Simpson, 2009, p. 16). Over 20 experiments with variations of the settings were conducted in Migram’s obedience research.

In the experiment, participants were told to help in a research of memory and learning. A serious experimenter who wore a lab coat explained that the pioneering study was to assess how punishment could affect learning. Each participant was assigned to the role of “teacher” to teach paired words from a given list to a “learner” acted by a research staff. The participant was required to punish each error by giving an electric shock and increase the intensity for continuous errors. The participant was instructed to use a bogus shock generator with switches ranging from 15 to 450 volts in 15-volt increments. Labels such as “Danger: Severs Shock” were put for switches of high volts. When the participant increased the shocks as requested by the experimenter, the response from the pretended “learner” increased from grunting to shouting and screaming, but the experimenter encouraged the “teacher” to keep going as far as possible.

The results of the experiments showed that the majority of participants were willing to obey the authority of the experimenter even though they felt such demands conflicted with their conscience (Myers, 2012). Milgram observed an obedience rate of 82.5 percent in the experiments. One experiment with 40 men showed that 65 percent of participants proceeded to each level of increased intensity up to the maximum 450 volts. The results were unexpected because from a survey of 100 Americans in various ages and occupations, all respondents "predicted that only an insignificant minority would go through to the end of the shock series" (Milgram, 1963).

To understand why so many people would “engage in horrific atrocities that cause considerable harm to other people” (Hogg & Cooper, 2007, p. 315), Milgram and other scholars explained that the situation played an important role. As Milgram (1963) stated, “the sheer strength of obedient tendencies manifested in this situation (p. 376). Strong situations can “overwhelm personality variables, even in well-intentioned and caring people” (Benjamin & Simpson, 2009, p. 16).

Related Studies by Other Scholars

Since Milgram’s research, other scholars conducted more studies related to obedience. Several studies were replications of Milgram’s experiment; some studies were focused on different aspects of obedience behavior. These researches contributed to further understanding about how and why people obey the authority.

In 1973, Philip Zimbardo and his associates conducted the famous Stanford prison study. Researchers of this study created a simulated prison environment in which the participants’ behaviors of both conformity and obedience were investigated. A group of normal college students participated in the experiment by playing roles as prisoners and guards. The experiment demonstrated that participants were settling into their new roles within a short time and those in authoritative role intended to abuse the given power: In a few days some mock-guards started to mistreat and harass prisoners; some mock-prisoners became blindly obedient to the unfair authority of the abusive guards. In the simulated prison environment these ordinary college students on the prison guard role became careless and unsympathetic to the situation where their fellow students were suffering due to mistreatment. Several of mock-guards “devised sadistically inventive ways to harass and degrade the prisoners, and none of the less actively cruel mock-guards ever intervened or complained about the abuses they witnessed” (Haney & Zimbardo, 1998, p. 709). The results of this experiment showed that people intended to conform to the social roles they were expected to play, and the specific environment such as the prison could cause brutal behaviors of prison guards.

In 2006, a partial replication of Milgram’s obedience research was conducted by Jerry Burger. Since Milgram’s experiments, ethical concerns were raised and it was almost impossible to replicate exact procedures of Milgram’s experiments. With a careful design, Burger managed to retain important aspects of Milgram’s methodology with reduction of maximum level of allowable shock from 450 to 150 volts (Miller, 2009). The replication study showed only slightly lower obedience rates comparing to Milgram’s results 45 years ago. In Burger’s experiment, 70 percent of participants went up to the maximum level of 150-volt point and they were still obeying. The similarity between Burger’s and Milgram’s results suggests that “average Americans react to this laboratory situation today much the way they did 45 years ago” (Burger, 2009, p. 9).


It is known from common sense that people intend to obey authority, but Milgram’s research shocked the world by demonstrating how far people could go. The tendency to obey is much stronger than one could imagine. People are easily led or pushed to obey authority even in ways opposing to their moral standards. As Blass (2009) stated, “it does not take evil or aberrant persons to carry out actions that are reprehensible and cruel” (p. 40), which implied that it was the situation rather than an individual’s personality that caused the cruel behavior.

Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment is compatible with Milgram’s obedience experiment because findings from both demonstrated the power of authority could influence people’s attitudes and the situation could cause people’s abnormal behaviors in contrary to their personalities. As shown in the Stanford prison experiment, the participants in the position of authority with institutional support became atrocious and those in the powerless position as prisoners became passively obedient and depressed.

Milgram’s obedience experiments are widely cited in psychological studies for understanding the dark side of human nature, such as atrocities, massacres, and genocide, especially the behavior of Holocaust perpetrators. Milgram frequently “drew inferences from his studies to account for the behavior of people who went along with the Holocaust” (Burger, 2009, p. 10). Although many scholars supported Milgram’s view, some recent studies questioned the relevance of Milgram’s obedience studies to the understanding of the Holocaust. Mastroianni (2002) argued that such relevance was not validated in science and was “not derived from a careful and systematic comparison of the behavior of Milgram’s subjects and Holocaust perpetrators” (p. 170).


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