Last Updated 06 Jul 2020

Summary and critique of Stanley Milgram

Category Stanley Milgram
Essay type Summary
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The experiment on “Behavioral Study of Obedience” was conducted by Stanley Milgram in July 1961. It was barely three months after Adolf Eichmann had been tried over the criminal activities committed during the Nazi war. The research was designed to address the questions about the peoples who were the masterminds of the infamous Nazi torturing ordeal that were responsible for the deaths of millions of the innocent people. It was intended to find out the people who would prefer to be submissive to the authority at the expense of human life.

The experiment also sought to measure the willingness of individuals to obey an authority figure who instructs them to do certain things that are against their personal conscience. The question that the researchers were asking was, “Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?” The hypothesis was that there was likelihood that that during the Nazi war it might have been that Adolf Eichmann and his accomplices were just being submissive to the orders from higher authority (against their will) to murder the innocent people.

The research question was very instrumental in helping to unveil how one can alter another person’s behavior, beliefs and mind-set. Before giving the results of the experiment the researcher predicted that only a negligible number of the participants would obey the orders and persist on to administer maximum shock. The range was 0 – 3%. That meant that out of 100 participants only 3 would administer the 450 volt shock.

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The people who participate in the experiment (subjects) were drawn from different social status background within New Haven area. They comprised people from a wide range occupation with characteristic characters include clerical officers, teachers, salespersons, engineers and drudges. The group was a representative of all educational levels; from elementary school to doctorate and other professional degrees and aged between 20 – 50 years in their right state of mind (Milgram, S., 1963).

The dependable variable in this experiment was the maximum shock that the subject, S, was willing to administer to the victim L up to that point when he resist to follow the instructions given to him by the experimenter. The independent variables were the learner (an experimental confederate) and the experimenter’s orders.

There were two participants in each case. They were; a naïve subject who played the role of a “teacher” and was provided with a 450 volt electric shock generator and the second one a confederate who played the role of a “learner.” The task of the “teacher” was to read to the “learner” a list of word pairs. The “learner” on the other hand was to respond correctly to these pairs of words by pressing the button as an indicator of his response. In case of a wrong answer the “teacher” was to administer an electric shock to the “learner”. For each subsequent wrong answer, the “teacher” would increase the voltage.

Even though the subject believed that the learner was receiving the actual shock, the learner, being in a separate room, sets up a tape recorder which had been incorporated to the electric shock generator. This tape played sounds which had been pre-recorded to march each shock level. The presupposed victim (“learner”) would start to bang the wall separating him from the subject at given numbers of voltage increase. He would continue banging on the wall and complaining of heart condition until all the responses from him ceased. The data collected was based on how much electric shock the subjects were willing to inflict on the victim. This was to indicate their level of obedience and to see their willingness to obey the orders; if it they were doing it deliberately or did it against their will.


Eventually it was discovered that out of the 40 participants 14 subjects showed explicit signs of nervous laughter and smiling which were inapt and weird. Three of the subjects developed irrepressible convulsions. According to the results obtained, it is evident that while responding to the demands prompted by the appraisals, 40 themes exceed the projected break-off point.

None of them administered the electric shock below 300 volts, a point when the victim starts to kick the wall and provided no answers to the teacher’s questions. 5 of them stops at the 300 volt level; 4 of them proceeds to 315 volt level; 2 breaks of at 330 volt level; 3 others drop off at 345, 360 and 375 volts respectively. These 14 subjects were defiant to the experimenter’s instructions. They were recurrently in a frantic and enraged condition. However 26 of the 40 subjects were obedient enough to proceed on to punish the victim till they attain the shock of 450 volts. But they do this against their will. They could be observed to be in consternation once the experiment was brought to a halt.


The results obtained imply that there are people who, despite receiving orders from authority, would choose to defy and stick to what they believe is morally acceptable. In this case the 14 subjects held this belief and would not inflict pain on another person against his/her will. It was however observed that some people would choose to act against their conscience and submit to authority even if what they are ordered to do is against moral principles.

This what the 26 subjects did; despite expressing some signs of displeasure in shocking an innocent person, they still go on to obey the commands to the end. This implies that obedience to authority can cause harmless and non-hostile individuals to turn inhuman.

The results seems to be in contrast to those predicted in the questionnaire where only 3 out of 100 respondents said they would proceed to administer electric shock to their victim up to the most maximum and risky shock of 450 volts. In this case however, the figure was surprisingly high; 26 out of 40. It had also been expected that a subjected would basically terminate or proceed as dictated by his conscience. However the subjects exhibited tension and emotional strain in their response to the commands.

The experiment was well conducted and its objective was attained. The volunteers were got through a New Have (Connecticut) daily newspaper advert and direct mail to some informing them take part in the study of reminiscence as well as the learning designate conducted in a laboratory at Yale University. The real purpose of the experiment was hidden from the subjects until the experiment was over; they knew that the experiment was a study of memory and learning yet it was about study of obedience to authority.

Another thing was that the entire volunteers were to play the role of the teacher while that of the student was played by an experimental confederate. In addition, the generator that the teacher used was just but of 45 volts sample shock with the generator not wired to shock the learner. Lastly, the kicking of the wall by the learner, screams and his rejection to proceed and the commands/orders of the experimenter to the teacher were all skillfully fabricated. These indicate the researchers’ thoroughness in the design of the experiment to answer their specific research question. Most importantly, at the end of the experiment subjects underwent some procedures to assist them go back to normal well being.

The researchers did not however deal with any feasible alternative explanation for their results. This might be attributes to the fact that they expected the subjects to show some level of obedience. Also, the subjects might have been expected to act accordingly and participate fully to make the research successfully bearing in mind that the real objective of the experiment was hidden from them.

It should be stated here that there are some people who will not, at any cost, accept to administer any level of electric shock to another person. The research was also not well represented in terms of gender or the researchers did not specify the sex of the participants. This raises the question about the criteria that was used in selecting the subjects. But all in all the experiment was quite essential as it the positive and the negative nature of human beings.

Milgram. S. (1969); Study on behavioral obedience, Journal of Abnormal and social psychology; 371-378.

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Summary and critique of Stanley Milgram. (2017, Apr 13). Retrieved from

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