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Stanley Milgram on Milgram Experiment - Dictionary of Arguments

Haslam I 109
Milgram Experiment/Milgram: the basic set-up for these studies (Milgram 1974)(1) involved a learning experiment in which the participant found himself in the role of a ‘teacher’ who had to administer ever-increasing levels of electric shock to a ‘learner’ each time the learner gave a wrong answer. In fact, the learner was a confederate who had been carefully trained to play the role, and the impressive shock machine that appeared to deliver shocks of increasing magnitude was also bogus – but the teacher (the only true participant in the study) did not know this. For him (and all participants in the early study were male) the situation was very real indeed.
Before the experiment, Milgram had asked various groups (psychiatrists, college students, and middle-class adults) how far they would go in an imagined situation. No-one could have imagined going as far as "dangerous shock".
Yet when Milgram conducted pilot studies with Yale University students this was not what happened. Most of the participants in what became known as the baseline condition proved willing to obey the experimenter all the way to the bitter end.
Haslam I 110
Interpretation/Milgram: Milgram concluded that this comes about because people pay more attention to the task of carrying out instructions that to the actual consequences of that task.
Haslam I 109
Influences: Milgram was influenced by Hannah Arendt’s reports of the trial of Adolf Eichman[n] in The New Yorker, later published as Eichman[n] in Jerusalem (Arendt, 1963/1994)(2).
Arendt: Eichmann and his ilk, she suggested, were moved less by great hatreds than by the petty desire to do a task well and to please their superiors. Indeed, they concentrated so much on these tasks that they forgot about their consequences. For this phenomenon Arendt coined the formulation of the “banality of evil”. (Arendt 1963/1994(2): p.287).
Haslam I 113
Experiment: The participants, recruited through an advertisement in the local paper, were 40% blue-collar workers, 40% white-collar workers and 20% professionals. The experimenter explained that the study was concerned with the effect of punishment – electric shocks – on learning. Accordingly, one of the participants would serve as a ‘teacher’ and the other as a ‘learner’. A draw was then made to decide who would take which role – but this was rigged to ensure that the volunteer was always the teacher and the confederate was always the learner. Next, the teacher and learner were taken to another room and the learner was strapped into a chair and electrodes were attached to his body. The experimenter declared that ‘although the shocks can be extremely painful, they cause no permanent tissue damage’ (Milgram, 1974(1): 19). The learning task involved word pairs. First, the teacher read out a series of such pairs (e.g., blue–box). Then, in the ‘testing phase’ he read a target word from one of the pairs (in this example, blue) along with four other words (e.g., sky, ink, box, lamp). The learner then had to say which of these four words was originally paired with the target (in this instance, box). If the learner gave a wrong answer, the teacher had to deliver an electric shock by depressing one of the switches on the shock generator, moving one level higher with every error. There were 30 switches, increasing 15 volts at a time up to a maximum of 450 volts. If participants continued all the way to the maximum level, they were instructed to continue at this level of shock for subsequent errors.
In the baseline condition, as the learner was being strapped into the electric chair, he mentioned that he had a slight heart condition. Then, during the task itself, he made specific responses at different shock levels. (…) the experimenter responded using a predetermined set of prods. These were as follows: Prod 1: Please continue [or Please go on]. Prod 2: The experiment requires that you continue. Prod 3: It is absolutely essential that you continue. Prod 4: You have no other choice, you must go on.
In this baseline condition 26 out of 40 participants (65%) went all the way to the maximum level and never defied the experimenter – this was despite the screams, the demands to be released, the invocations of heart disease and, ultimately, the learner’s ominous silence. Of those 14 who did refuse to go on, the largest number (six) did so at the 150-volt level. No more than two people broke off at any other single level.
Haslam I 115
Variants: (…) the best-known set of variants addresses the physical proximity of the learner to the experimenter
1) the ‘remote’ experiment: the learner is in a separate room and his voice cannot be heard by the teacher. The only feedback comes at 300 volts when there is banging on the wall.
2) voice-feedback study: (…) almost identical to the ‘baseline’ variant except that there is no mention of a heart condition at any point.
3) (proximity): is like the second, except that it involves the teacher and learner being in the same room so there is visual as well as auditory feedback.
4) (touch proximity): the teacher has to press the learner’s hand onto a metal shock plate.
Other Variants: in one study, it is the learner who demands that the shocks are delivered. At 150 volts the experimenter calls a halt to the study but the learner indicates a willingness to continue.
In another study, the person demanding that shocks be delivered is not a scientist in a lab coat, but just an ordinary man, ostensibly a volunteer for the study, just like the participant. In this situation only 4 out of 20 people (20%) obey to the end.
Haslam I 116
In yet another study, there are two scientist experimenters who argue with each other as to whether shocks should be delivered. Here again, not one of the 20 participants (0%) is fully obedient and 18 of them stop at the 150-volt mark.
Gender: Variants with women as participants: When women are used instead of men, there is no difference in obedience levels. Out of 40 participants, 26 are fully obedient (65%).
Schema: The Milgram paradigm, then, is one in which the participant is assailed on all sides by different voices demanding different things. The participants seem to be attentive to all these voices and their dilemma is which to prioritize over the others. >Explanations/Milgram.
Haslam I 118
VsMilgram: Even Milgram’s most ardent admirers are highly sceptical about the ‘agentic state’ explanation (e.g., Blass, 2004(3)). If nothing else, this is because there is no evidence that the different levels of obedience witnessed across the study variants relate to differences in the extent to which participants enter into this state (Mantell and Panzarella, 1976)(4).
1. VsMilgram: the agentic state is conceptualized mechanically as an all-or-nothing affair: one is either completely in or completely out of it.
2. VsMilgram: [the focus on] one of the several relationships in the study – that between participant and experimenter [makes him lose] sight of the fact that a key feature of the studies concerns the way in which participants are torn between different relationships and different obligations. It therefore fails to address the ways in which the balance of relationships varies between the different studies


1. Milgram, S. (1974) Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
2. Arendt, H. (1963/1994) Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Penguin.
3. Blass, T. (2004) The Man who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram. New York: Basic Books.
4. Mantell, D.M. and Panzarella, R. (1976) ‘Obedience and responsibility’, British Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 15: 239–45.


Stephen Reicher and S. Alexander Haslam, „Obedience. Revisiting Milgram’s shock experiments”, in: Joanne R. Smith and S. Alexander Haslam (eds.) 2017. Social Psychology. Revisiting the Classic Studies. London: Sage Publications


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Explanation of symbols: Roman numerals indicate the source, arabic numerals indicate the page number. The corresponding books are indicated on the right hand side. ((s)…): Comment by the sender of the contribution. Translations: Dictionary of Arguments
The note [Author1]Vs[Author2] or [Author]Vs[term] is an addition from the Dictionary of Arguments. If a German edition is specified, the page numbers refer to this edition.
Milgram, Stanley
Haslam I
S. Alexander Haslam
Joanne R. Smith
Social Psychology. Revisiting the Classic Studies London 2017


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Ed. Martin Schulz, access date 2021-04-12
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