The Milgram Shock Experiment


Lera Andronova, Author

The Milgram Shock Experiment, run by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram, included a series of tests that assessed the nature of human obedience. The experiment began in July 1961, a year after the Adolf trial in Jerusalem. Milgram questioned, “Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?” (Milgram, 1947).

Milgram advertised for male participants to participate in a study of learning at Yale University. The participants were 40 males, aged between 20 and 50 from the New Haven area. Their jobs ranged from unskilled to professional and the selected participants were paid $4.50 for just turning up.

Each participant was paired with another person and they “picked straws” to find out who would be the ‘learner’ and who would be the ‘teacher.’  However, the draw was actually planned so that the participant was always the teacher, and the learner was one of Milgram’s confederates (pretending to be a real participant). Every participant selected from Milgram’s advertising was a teacher.

After the learner has done their best to memorize a list of words and their pairs, they are tested. The teacher is asked to vocalize a word to the learner and question them about that word’s pair.

The teacher is then told, by a developed authority figure, to administer an electric shock every time the learner makes a mistake, increasing the level of shock each time. There were 30 switches on the shock generator marked from 15 volts (slight shock) to 450 (danger – severe shock).

Milgram Obedience IV VariationsThe actors (learners) were told to make several mistakes on purpose. Of course, the shocks weren’t actually real (as they would be excruciatingly painful) but the selected participants fully believed they were. The learners acted as if they were in pain whenever a shock was delivered. They pleaded for the teacher to stop shocking them and complained about heart issues.

After many tests, Milgram found that 65% of the participants continued to the highest level of 450 volts. All the participants continued to 300 volts. Overall, Milgram concluded that ordinary people are likely to follow orders given by an authority figure, even to the extent of killing an innocent human being.  Obedience to authority is ingrained in us all from the way we are brought up.