Milgram Experiment: Psychology of Obedience


The Milgram experiment is one of the most controversial studies in history. In 1961, a social psychologist, Stanley Milgram, devised a test to see if order and law-abiding individuals would give a stranger a lethal electric shock in the name of science (Staub, p. 503). Through this, he was able to study the obedience of individuals to authority. This paper aims to bring to light the theme of ethics as presented in the experiment. The paper also seeks to analyze how psychological concepts and human nature can be used to explain why people obey.

Purpose of the study

Milgram’s experiment mainly revolved around investigating the relationship between personal conscience and a person obeying authority. His objective was to examine the conditions under which an individual would obey authority who commanded actions that went against conscience. This was evaluated by measuring the level of obedience of the participants. Before the course of the experiment, researchers hypothesized that approximately 1% of the subjects would not stop giving shocks, i.e., go up to 450 volts (p. 505). This is because they believed that an individual had to be pathological or a psychopath to do such, as this was the dispositional orientation in practice. However, contradictory to the results of the experiment, their hypothesis was not supported. The results showed that 65% reached up to 450 volts. This means that two of three of the subjects did not stop giving shocks even when the learner complained of a heart condition and stated that they did not want to proceed. None of the participants dropped to 285 volts. Therefore, this suggests that obedience in human beings is more of innate behavior.


Milgram’s study was designed to analyze the notorious response of Nazi war criminals in a trial who stated that they were “just following orders.” Milgram wanted to establish how ordinary people could perform inhumane acts without any limitations of conscience when directed by the authority. However, the experiment violated some of the established modern ethical standards guiding research. According to (American Psychological Association), these established standards include:

  • The standard of beneficence and maleficence was not upheld. The act of shocking another individual exposed the participants to psychological harm
  • The researchers did not uphold integrity. Participants were made to believe that the experiment was for a worthy purpose, i.e., it was essential in knowledge advancement.
  • The participants were not well informed on what the study method entailed, i.e., the risks. Instead, they were led to believe that they were causing physical harm to the learners; thus they were exposed to potential psychological harm.
  • The participants’ right to withdraw consent was infringed. Participants were not allowed to withdraw their participation. Moreover, when they requested if they could be allowed to stop, they were urged by the experimenter to continue.

However, the experiment reflects ethics in research because:

  • All the participants volunteered for the study.
  • The role of the teacher and learner had been fairly allocated by drawing lots.
  • The participants had been informed that the shocks were painful, but not dangerous.

I feel that such a study seems reasonable judging from the era and circumstances in which the study was conducted. At that time, America was still scarred by the events of World War II, and it seemed a justifiable way of seeking answers.

Psychological concepts and theories

Psychological explanations for human obedience

Agency theory of obedience was developed by Stanley Milgram to explain the two states of behavior people elicit when placed in a variety of social situations. These include the autonomous and agentic state. In the autonomous state, individuals direct their behavior and take responsibility for the results. On the other hand, in the agentic state, respective individuals allow others to direct their behavior and assume that the consequences of the responsibility pass to the person giving the orders.

Why participants in Milgram’s study obey the researcher

There are several reasons as to why the participants in the study obeyed the researcher. First, it might be because the experiment was conducted in the prestigious Yale University, which gave the study credibility; hence participants might have been assured by that fact. Second, the participants believed that the study was for a worthy purpose. Third, the participants believed that learners had volunteered for the experiment; thus they were obligated to continue even when it became unpleasant. Fourth, the act of being paid increased the participants’ sense of obligation. Lastly, the participants might have felt obligated to take part in the procedures as planned.

Application of outcome

Obedience to social norms and expectations is not always necessary or beneficial. This is because they are not always ethical. People tend to change their behavior and attitude to match that of others around them. This is mainly driven by the fact that people are very much concerned about what others think of them. Moreover, social norms and expectations are not perfect since they are susceptible to issues of hierarchy and “unfairness” of society. A classic example is binge drinking among college students.

Deviance away from the social norms and expectations is not always detrimental. This is because although societal norms and expectations are imperfect entities, they still play a crucial role in maintaining peace and order in a society. Moreover, deviance is sometimes not detrimental as it acts as a basis for change and innovation.

Application to others

The presence of others influences decision-making and individual behavior. Moreover, people tend to rely heavily on social norms in situations of uncertainty. In the social context, adaptive decisions are dependent on perceptual information and social norms or expectations. Perceptual information and social norms are sometimes in conflict when certain choices are beneficial to a person; however, social norms direct a different course of action.


The results obtained from Milgram’s study are just a simple indication of how obedience in human beings is an innate behavior. Human beings are socialized to be obedient; thus it is easier to obey than disobey. However, at times, there are disparities and this has more to do with individual personalities. Moreover, people’s actions are best explained by the situations they find themselves in rather than their dispositions.

Works Cited

  1. American Psychological Association. “Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct.” APA, Web.
  2. Staub, Ervin. “Obeying, Joining, Following, Resisting, and Other Processes in the Milgram Studies, and in the Holocaust and Other Genocides: Situations, Personality, and Bystanders.” Journal of Social Issues, vol. 70, no. 3, 2014, pp. 501-514.
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