Episode 97: Stanley Milgram Obedience Study – Everything You Want to Know

MichaelEthics, Social Psychology20 Comments

Picture of the Milgram Shock machine
The obedience studies originally conducted by Stanley Milgram (sometimes referred to as the Milgram Shock studies or the Milgram obedience studies) have been replicated in a university setting. Will people obey an authority figure and give a stranger a dangerous shock? Or have things changed such that people will be more willing to be disobedient to authority?

Resources on the Milgram Obedience Study

  • Interesting article that appeared in the New York Times about the Milgram study.

  • One of my “virtual colleagues”, Dr. Christopher Green, professor of psychology at York University, allowed me to share this observation he sent to me via email:

The key to the Milgram effect, as you mentioned, is gradualism. The Nazis didn’t come to power declaring immediately that they would kill all the Jews. First, they gassed the “insane” and “defective” (in a time when (1) eugenics had just passed the height of its popularity in Europe and North America, (2) mental illness and disability was still widely believed to be hereditary, and (3) when the German economy was in collapse and could no longer sustain major social institutions like asylums). In short, in that context, it seemed to many to be a defensible, if distasteful, solution to an apprehended problem, and there was little reaction from the population. Then they gassed homosexuals, a group that was easily conflated in the public mind with the “insane” but who were, by contrast, functioning members of society. Again, little public reaction. Then they gassed the “Gypsies” (Roma), the only “racial” group that was even more despised (for its alleged inherent criminality) by the general population than the Jews, but much larger and more “normal”apparently than either of the previous two groups (a little bit more gradualism). Still, no major public reaction. Only then did Hitler announce the “final solution” for the Jews. For most (non-insane, non-homosexual, non-Gypsy, non-Jewish) Germans, they had been led along this gradual path, and behavioral consistency (not to mention the SS) demanded compliance (and years of this on smaller scales had begun to “normalize” this kind of “solution”). What public opposition there was could be easily dismissed or crushed. And it has happened again and again and again in the decades since: Soviet Union, China, Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur, and, on a much smaller scale, at Abu Graib (and many other prisons and similarly “closed” institutions about which we know little).

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20 Comments on “Episode 97: Stanley Milgram Obedience Study – Everything You Want to Know”

  1. There was a problem with this episode – thanks for pointing it out. I fixed it and the correct episode will play now.

  2. I can’t get the Milgram podcast. When I click on Episode 97, the only episode that shows up is the link to Episode 98 (Evolutionary Psychology: An Interview with Dr. David Buss). Am I missing something or has the link changed? If you could let me know, that would be much appreciated. Thank you for your work and efforts. You make teaching AP Psychology a lot more interesting and fun.

  3. I recently watched a Netflix original program called “The Push” which seems to be a modern application of the underlying theories of Milgram’s study. Even more than seeing the outcome of this study, I found myself curious as to the long-term effects, if any, on the participants. Would you consider doing a podcast on “The Push” and/or a podcast on the psychological impact of such studies on the participants?

  4. Pingback: Episode 176: Situationism in Psych: Milgram & Stanford Prison Experiments (Part One) | The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast | A Philosophy Podcast and Blog

  5. Hi there,

    I am just learning about Jerry Burger’s replication experiment of Milgram’s and I am wondering what in Burger’s experiment is the Independent variable and the Dependent variable?
    Is it the same as what was in Milgram’s?

    Thank you!

  6. Gemma asks some good questions: what were the IV and DVs in this study and what was the design. The original study was really just a case study: what would happen if a person who claimed to be an experimenter asked me to simply continue shocking the “learner”? There was just one group so it really wasn’t an experiment.

    More variables were added in as the study was replicated. For example, Milgram examined the average shock level in these two conditions: a) when the “learner” was in the same room with the “teacher” vs. when the learner was in a different room than the learner (as he did in the original study). At this point you’ve got an experiment with two groups. The independent variable is the location of the “teacher” (same room vs. different room). The dependent variable would be the average level of shock delivered to the learner. This makes it a two group, between subjects design.

    Hope that helps!


  7. Hello,
    I was wondering what the independent and dependent variables were for this study. Also what is the design? I am completing a paper on this experiment, and I have to write a design section.

  8. I truly seem to go along with every thing that ended up being written within “Episode 97:
    Stanley Milgram Obedience Study Finally Replicated | The Psych Files Podcast”.
    Many thanks for all of the information.Regards,Yukiko

  9. Pingback: The ethics of proximity. « SZERETETT

  10. Interesting question NYer. I’ve read about a lot of variations that Milgram did during these studies on obedience, but I haven’t heard about one in which he used a female “experimenter”. I’ll bet he would have had different results.

    Nick: yes Milgram conducted a thorough debriefing of all subjects. I assume that the subject who talked to his electrician did so because he was still quite bothered by the whole experience.

  11. I’m curious if the gender of the experimenter is a factor. Are subjects more likely to obey a male authority figure and disobey a female authority figure? Are female experimenters perceived and treated as less legitimate even though they occupy the same position.

    Side note: I just discovered these podcasts on iTunes, so I’m catching up on past episodes.

  12. I’ve read the article (Some Conditions of Obedience and Disobedience to Authority), and to me it looks like Milgram explained to subjects the real purpose, and told them that the learner didn’t receive shocks, before they left the lab. That is, they were debriefed right after the experiment. In my copy of the article, on page 58 of 57-76, there’s a lengthy footnote that describes the post-experimental treatment. If this is true, the man who talked to his electrician would have no need to do so. What happened?

    Great podcast, by the way.

  13. Being in a lab helps you to control things like background noise, interruptions, distractions, etc. Also, you can be sure that all the subjects experienced the exact same environment in the study.

  14. Thanks for the response Professor.
    I’m going to ask a few psych profs at university and check this. Because I know online education and gaining people’s attention needs a different approach than in-person, but need evidence to back it up.

    If anything interest I’ll leave it in the comments or drop you an email to get further insight.

    Thank you.

  15. Nahyan: I never thought of applying Milgram’s findings. Interesting idea. I would think that you’ve got a point there. For online courses in particular, the instructor may never be seen by the student. I would guess that this fact does decrease the amount of influence an instructor can have on students – which is why everyone says that taking an online course really requires a lot of self-motivation since you don’t have to tell the instructor face-to-face that you didn’t do your work for the day. Interesting connection.

  16. Great podcast.
    I didn’t know Milgram replicated the study with changes to experimenter’s proximity. That’s actually very interesting to note that the responses differed dramatically when experimenter wasn’t physically present as well as the social element.

    The results of the replication was interesting nonetheless, even with the changes the general fact on obedience to authority remains.

    Thanks for the slides, it was really helpful to follow along and go back to.

    1 question: would this apply to how learning and influence occurs today, since people learn via the internet and not as much face-to-face? Does it significantly decrease the amount of influence and level of learning a person can have on another?

    Thank you

  17. Good question Malerie. There’s a good bit of controversy over this. I think it’s best to call Milgram’s early study a “laboratory observation”. In later studies he did manipulate whether or not the experimenter was in the same room as the “learner” and he manipulated the number of people who sat with the “learner” while he gave out the questions and the answers, and these could be called experiments. But none of these would be called correlational studies.

  18. What kind of experiment was Milgram’s study of obedience to authority? Was it a formal experiment or correlational method?

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