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Home » People » Joe Braunwarth » Milgram Experiment



SS Lt. Adolf Eichmann

The first televised courtroom trial in the history of television happened in 1961, when a Jerusalem court tried Nazi SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann for crimes against the Jewish people. Eichmann was the head of Gestapo Department IV B4, and the mastermind behind deporting Jews into ghettoes and then into concentration camps. The direction of this self-proclaimed "Jewish Specialist" was largely responsible for the death of six million Jews. The world attentively watched their tubes, trying to anticipate what Eichmann would be like. We expected a monster, an infinitude of hatred, perhaps the devil incarnate.

After observing the trial, philosopher Hannah Arendt argued in her controversial essay "The Banality of Evil" that Adolf Eichmann was just an ordinary guy. Eichmann is you and me. There was nothing strikingly evil about him. Eichmann's defense, like that of other Nazis, was that he was "just following orders." Furthermore, Eichmann said that he actually had no real ill will toward Jews. In any case, Arendt was ostracized by the Jewish community for the rest of her life, and Eichmann was hanged and cremated. His ashes were then peppered across the Mediterranean Sea.

The Milgram experiment may be the most famous experiment in psychology to date. It was conducted in 1963, shortly after Eichmann's trial. The world still needed an explanation for Nazi behavior. How could this have happened? Were these Nazis a different kind of human, with no thresholds of violence? Milgram showed that this was not so. Take the average American, put him in the right environment, and he will transform into a slaughterous Nazi.

Experimental Setup 

Stanley Milgram 1963 > Milgram puts out a newspaper advertisement offering male Americans around the vicinity of Yale University to participate in a psychology experiment about memory and learning. Upon arriving at Yale, the participant is introduced to a tall, sharp and stern looking experimenter (Milgram) wearing a white lab coat. The participant is also introduced to a friendly co-participant, who is actually a confederate (a person pretending to be a participant, like a rigged audience for a magician). Milgram explains that the experiment investigates punishment in learning, and that one will be the "teacher", and one will be the "learner." Rigged lots are drawn to determine roles, and it is decided that the true participant will be the "teacher."

Milgram Setup

The confederate is strapped to a chair, and his arm is dotted with electrodes. Milgram instructs the teacher to read out word pairs from a list, such as "clear" goes with "air", or "dictionary" goes with "red". Afterwards, when the teacher says a word, the learner must regurgitate the other word that goes with the teacher's word. If the learner recalls the correct word, we move to the next word pair. Otherwise, he is given a voltage shock. These shocks increase in amplitude as more mistakes are made. However, Milgram says that "no permanent tissue damage will occur" (gee how reassuring). Shocks start at 15 volts, and grow in 15 volt increments.

Milgram Shockgenerator

The shock generator is rather amusing. It has 30 switches, each labeled with a voltage ranging from 15 through 450 volts, and a verbal rating, ranging from "slight shock" to "danger: severe shock". The final two switches are labeled "XXX".

The confederate responds in the following manner to the shocks:

voltage confederate response
75 grunts
120 shouts in pain
150 says that he refuses to continue with this experiment
200 blood-curdling screams
300 refuses to answer, mumbles something about a heart condition
+330 silence

As the participant perceives the confederate's pain, his conscience kicks in, and he begins to object to continuing the experiment. Milgram responds to these objections in the following way:

objection Milgram's response
first "He's fine. go on."
second "The experiment requires you to go on."
third "It is absolutely essential to go on."
fourth "You have no choice. You must go on."

Question: What percentage of participants would deliver the full 450 volts?

Milgram asked his colleagues this question, and they responded with very small estimates. Maybe about 4 percent. Milgram himself didn't believe anyone would go so far.

Experimental Results

Milgram Account

Milgram's results were alarming. Of the 40 participants he surveyed, 68% of them ended up delivering the full 450 volt treatment. 15 of the 40 ended up convulsing with epileptic laughter. Participants went temporarily mad and started tearing their hair out. Most amusingly, Milgram actually believed that the aforementioned experimental setup was the CONTROL case! He did not anticipate that subjects would conform at all in these conditions.

Right: Maximum shock voltage delivered by each of the 40 participants. Mode is XXX.

Below: Shows how participant compliance slowly decays as voltages increase. 68% complied till the end!
Milgrapm Graphy

Milgram Graph 2



  • Situationism > The moral of Milgram's experiment is that behavior is not just a function of personality, but also a function of the situation -- and the latter variable can possess dramatic weight. The bullets directly below detail aspects of Milgram's fabricated environment which made it most persuasive.
  • Entrapment / Gradual Commitment > If I just gave him a 50 volt shock, what's wrong with a 75 volt shock? It's only a little more. If I just gave him a 75 volt shock, what's wrong with a 100 volt shock? It's only a little more ... If I just gave him a 425 volt shock, what's wrong with a 450 volt shock? People can be entrapped into fulfilling ridiculous requests if you just ask them to commit gradually. Mating is another example of entrapment. First you go out for coffee, then you go on a few more casual dates, then you watch TV together, then you make out, and then before you know it, you get married.
  • Objectivity > Milgram told participants that the "learning" experiment was being conducted in the pursuit of science, to study how memory and learning processes work in humans. The scientific theme, combined with the prestige of Yale University and the nontrivial influence of Milgram's lab coat, suggested that participants calmly and objectively complete the study regardless of how the victim was suffering. Do it scientifically. Do it like professionals.
  • Authority Structures > Milgram played the authority figure. It was his experiment. Participants thus believed that any negative ramifications of the experiment would ultimately be blamed on Milgram and not themselves. Furthermore, Milgram was a scientist at Yale. So participants assumed that he probably knew what he was doing, and everything was going to be alright. Authority structures strip away moral responsibility.

Manipulating Obedience: Methods That Don't Work

  • Reduce Prestige (48%) > The same experiment was conducted at a less prestigious school called Bridgeport. 48% of participants still gave the full 450 V shock.
  • Soften Personality of Authority Figure (50%) > Milgram was a tall, stern, imposing figure with a severe haircut. The experiment was repeated with nicer experimenters. 50% of the participants still gave the full 450 V shock.

Manipulating Obedience: Methods That Do Work

  • Reduce Legitimacy of Authority Figure (20%) > Here there are two confederates: one assigned to be the learner, and another who assists the participant in the "teaching" process. Shortly after the participant arrives, Milgram says he's got something else to do, and asks the participant and teaching confederate, "Why don't you two just finish the experiment yourself?" Milgram leaves. The loony teaching confederate then says that he's got a great idea: let's shock the learner when he gets things wrong! 

    20% of participants deliver maximum voltage.

    One way to look at this is as a very positive change. We went from 68% compliance to 20%. But the other way to look at this is with awesome fear. 20% of us will actually blast away another person if a random guy on the street tells us to! 

  • Increase Distance From Authority (20%) > When the authority figure is no longer standing next to the participant, but rather sends commands via telephone, 450 V compliance drops to 20%. 

    This phenomenon is also frequently observed in army battles. During WWII, soldiers in trenches would fight very cooperatively with their enemies when commanding officers were far away. One side would fire some initial pot-shots to warn the other side to hide. Then they would shoot a little bit, and quickly return to their trenches. The other side then did the same. Repeat. No one gets hurt! And since the commander isn't there, you can get away with it.  
  • Decrease Distance From Victim (30%) > When participants are required to put the learner's hands on the shock plates, or are simply placed closer to the victims, 450 V compliance drops to 30%. Reducing the distance amplifies participants' perceptions of the confederate's pain, stinging their empathy.

    Another example of this effect occurred during the Holocaust. The original master plan did not involve large-scale incinerators and gas chambers, but instead asked that Nazi soldiers be responsible for rounding up particular families and killing them. This resulted in widespread mutiny and alcoholism among SS soldiers, because they couldn't handle seeing the pain of their victims up close. 
  • Add Dissenting Voices (37.5%) > Two confederates assist the participant. One reads a word. Another determines whether the "learner" responds correctly. Finally, the participant is responsible for delivering the shock. At the 150 V mark, the first confederate quits the experiment. At the 210 V mark, the second confederate also quits, leaving the participant with sole responsibility for the shock treatment. 25/40 participants leave at this point.

    These results are testimony to the power of dissenting voices, and provides insight as to why some dictators throughout history have been so tenacious about eradicating all dissent in their jurisdiction, even in its slightest, most innocent form. An example is Stalin, who deleted everyone who disagreed with him in any way. 


Milgram Obedience

Milgram's quintessential psychology experiment trembled the world. It has been reproduced in many different countries, and is studied in most psychology courses, including two mandatory psychology courses at the US Military Academy. Unfortunately, not much has changed since 1963 in terms of unsound obedience; thousands are killed everyday by automatons who operate under the pretense of simply following orders.

An issue raised shortly after Milgram's explosion of fame was whether it was ethical to conduct such deceptive and distressing psychology experiments. Although most of the participants in Milgram's original experiment were very pleased to have participated in such an unforgettable learning experience, one of them was forever traumatized and had great difficulty continuing with his life. Regulations have now been introduced to prevent such psychological casualties; most notably, the requirement of informed consent, which demands that subjects be told what they will be doing before they actually do it. Whether Milgram's experiment was ethically justified is still the subject of heated debate today. On one hand, it seems inherently unethical. The world certainly learned a lot from it though. However, do the ends justify the means?


  • Before you make assumptions about a person based on his or her behavior, remember that behavior is also a function of the situation, which can be more powerful than you might expect. 
Last Updated: 11/14/2014
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