Milgram’s obedience studies – not about obedience after all?

Stanley Milgram’s seminal experiments in the 1960s may not have been a demonstration of obedience to authority after all, a new study claims.

Milgram appalled the world when he showed the willingness of ordinary people to administer a lethal electric shock to an innocent person, simply because an experimenter ordered them to do so. Participants believed they were punishing an unsuccessful ‘learner’ in a learning task; the reality was the learner was a stooge. The conventional view is that the experiment demonstrated many people’s utter obedience to authority.

Attempts to explore the issue through replication have stalled in recent decades because of concerns the experiment could be distressing for participants. Jerry Burger at Santa Clara University found a partial solution to this problem in a 2009 study, after he realised that 79 per cent of Milgram’s participants who went beyond the 150-volt level (at which the ‘learner’ was first heard to call out in distress) subsequently went on to apply the maximum lethal shock level of 450 volts, almost as if the 150-volt level were a point of no return [further information]. Burger conducted a modern replication up to the 150-volt level and found that a similar proportion of people (70 per cent) were willing to go beyond this point as were willing to do so in the 1960s (82.5 per cent). Presumably, most of these participants would have gone all the way to 450 volts level had the experiment not been stopped short.

Now Burger and his colleagues have studied the utterances made by the modern-day participants during the 2009 partial-replication, and afterwards during de-briefing. They found that participants who expressed a sense that they were responsible for their actions were the ones least likely to go beyond the crucial 150-volt level. Relevant to this is that Milgram’s participants (and Burger’s) were told, if they asked, that responsibility for any harm caused to the learner rested with the experimenter.

In contrast to the key role played by participants’ sense of responsibility, utterances betraying concern about the learner’s wellbeing were not associated with whether they went beyond the 150-volt level. Yes, participants who voiced more concerns required more prompts from the experimenter to continue, but ultimately they were just as likely to apply the crucial 150-volt shock.

However, it’s the overall negligible effect of these experimenter prompts that’s led Burger and his team to question whether Milgram’s study is really about obedience at all. In their 2009 partial-replication, Burger’s lab copied the prompts used in the seminal research, word-for-word. The first time a participant exhibited reluctance to continue, the experimenter said, ‘Please continue’. With successive signs of resistance, the experimenter’s utterances became progressively more forceful: ‘The experiment requires that you continue’; ‘It is absolutely essential that you continue’; and finally ‘You have no other choice, you must go on.’

Burger’s revelation (based on their 2009 replication) is that as the experimenter utterances became more forceful – effectively more like a command, or an order – their effectiveness dwindled. In fact, of the participants who were told ‘you have no choice, you must continue’, all chose to disobey and none reached the 150-volt level. ‘The more the experimenter’s statement resembled an order,’ the researchers said, ‘the less likely participants did what the experimenter wished.’ It would be interesting to learn if the same pattern applied during Milgram’s original studies, but those results were not reported here, perhaps because the necessary data are not available.

Burger and his colleagues said their new observation has implications for how Milgram’s studies are portrayed to students and the wider public. Their feeling is that Milgram’s results say less about obedience and rather more about our general proclivity for acting out of character in certain circumstances. ‘The point is that these uncharacteristic behaviours may not be limited to circumstances in which an authority figure gives orders,’ Burger and his team said. ‘Few of us will ever find ourselves in a situation like My Lai or Abu Ghraib. But each of us may well encounter settings that lead us to act in surprising and perhaps disturbing ways.’

Burger, J., Girgis, Z., and Manning, C. (2011). In Their Own Words: Explaining Obedience to Authority Through an Examination of Participants’ Comments. Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550610397632

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

More on Milgram:
Milgram’s personal archive reveals how he created the ‘strongest obedience situation’.
Classic 1960’s obediency experiment reproduced in virtual reality.

23 thoughts on “Milgram’s obedience studies – not about obedience after all?”

  1. WEeeeeeeeellllllllll…… Maybe the participants who went the whole hog didn't feel responsible for their actions because they were being given orders.

  2. Perhaps an important factor in Milgram's experiments (and later follow-ups) is people's reticence to diverge from a path or role once they have committed to it. Once we have made a decision it is very difficult to unmake it- maybe because of a compulsion to be consistent, or maybe due simply to inertia and disconnection. A decision as trivial as being part of a lab experiment could led many who would not unmake that decision to collaborate in what was clearly presented as the injury and potential death of other humans. Denial could also play a role in this, as we are very motivated to avoid facing threatening aspects of something we are already involved in.

  3. Humans too rarely consult their conscience in the moment – we too often simply continue with old decisions and investments. To be free and truly active in their own life decisions people need to be really “in” the moment – and to accept the value, freedom and potential gains of u-turns.

  4. BTW while it is great these studies have raised these issues again – the researchers analysis describing “our general proclivity to act out of character in certain circumstances” really is NO analysis. Milgrams experiments showed clear and unexpected trends in following orders to continue with a commitment. These behaviours may be contrary to people's understandings of themselves but really are too predominant/ significant to dismiss as “out of character”. They are in fact characteristic responses in these circumstances, and the mechanisms and/or motivations behind them must be further questioned and studied rather than being dismissed or mystified.

  5. I tend to agree that the Milgram experiments were not a demonstration of the participants obedience. I reckon they spoke volumes for their reasoning abilities though

  6. This is an interesting article, but I have some misgivings about the design of the experiment:

    “The first time a participant exhibited reluctance to continue, the experimenter said, 'Please continue'. With successive signs of resistance, the experimenter's utterances became progressively more forceful: 'The experiment requires that you continue'; 'It is absolutely essential that you continue'; and finally 'You have no other choice, you must go on.'

    “Burger's revelation (based on their 2009 replication) is that as the experimenter utterances became more forceful – effectively more like a command, or an order – their effectiveness dwindled.”

    Command-like statements in the experiment occur only after resistance has already taken place, so the people who are more resistant to continuing are the ones who make it to the more command-like statements. It would be interesting to see if the results continue to hold if the experiment were modified to randomize the order in which the experimenter presents these statements.

  7. May be American's have been more self reliant aka anti-authority in the past few decades. (that famous Lake Wobegon effect ??)
    Why not try to repeat the experiment in other non-western countries?

  8. My theory is the difference in beliefs. Let me explain; In the 1960s more people had a stronger faith. And when people have a strong faith the seem to subconsciously believe that they are not in full control (linking in with personalities). The lack of faith in today's societies could show the difference with the results as people who do not have faith feel that they have more control, more choice in the matter.

  9. Anonymous, do you think the participants in the 1960s saw the experimenter as a kind of “God” or that God would prevent anything bad from happening? Do we have any data on what they might have felt?

  10. It sounds as if it relates to cognitive dissonance. Participants find themselves continuing to shock a person which is inconsistent with their self-image as a kind and caring person. They are receiving some push from the experimenter but not enough to make them feel as if they are being forced. People's dissonance should be the greatest when they are shocking with weak compulsion from the experimenter.

    They feel uncomfortable. But why don't they stop – because we are generally socialized to be agreeable people that follow directions. As they see themselves continuing, a justification about the learner may be building in their head – he deserved it, he does seem really dumb.

    But when it gets to the level where they are being ordered to directly do something that is generally anti-social, they stop. When they are being ordered that dissonance disappears, b/c they can now attribute their actions to the experimenter. So possibly, no dissonance, no need to self-justify, now the experimenter is a jerk, they actually stop.

  11. I question the 82 percentage cited in the article. Not much supports that number in the original research posted by Stanley Milgram

  12. Not sure if it's a matter of faith, however, I find that notion compelling. Surely indicates a level of societal reaction to 'authority'. The populus was prehaps more inclined to obey in the 60's – I call that a healthy amount of respect, e.g., for the police, hospital staff, teachers – however, Milgrum clearly indentified this and used to his advantage. I believe that healthy level of respect may have declined in recent decades. Furthermore, as a second year undergrad psych student, I've discovered we do not command much respect in the overall community. I believe Berger's research casts light on more than simple willingness to obey.

  13. I would have thought there's an important intrinsic-extrinsic motivation question to be answered here. Krish has partly tapped this. Is the reluctance to go on due to strength of command, i.e. extrinsic, or strength of attitude not to, value conflict, dissonance created, etc. i.e. instrinsic. I would think the latter is more likely (although I haven't read the full paper)

  14. Krish…your point about the confounding of the effects of prior resistance/ order effects with instruction style is a very important one. How did this study pass peer review? The researchers' conclusions describing trends as “out of character” behavior show no link with their findings or any intelligent attempt to understand anything. Why was this published? Are we really that anxious to avoid evidence of human failings that we are willing to give voice to such appalling pseudo-scientific analysis? (makes me feel our feild is in need of a little more “inflicted insight”!)

  15. Georgina: the fact that it is only resistant participants who receive progressively stronger commands doesn't undermine the researchers' interpretation. If Milgram is principally about obedience to authority (as it is usually portrayed) then you would expect the resistant participants to be influenced by the voice of authority. They weren't (at least not in the partial replication). In fact nobody who received the strongest command went beyond the crucial point. That means we need to look elsewhere to understand who did and who didn't decide to administer the shocks. Those who gave shocks weren't persuaded to do so by strong commands, by the voice of authority, they did so for some other reason – for example, because they didn't feel responsible for the learner.

  16. In the 60's authority for the general populous believed that authority held a position of power. More recently people have come to 1) be less trusting of that same authority ; this might explain why the authority figure became more aggressive the participant pushed back and 2) through cinema something called suspension of disbelief (they know that something in the movie is not possible yet it is accepted allowing for the temporary ignoring of cognitive dissonance)this would allow them to suspend the idea that the person was actually being hurt and 2) personalities are not taken into account, such as co-dependant (doing it to be liked more by the person in authority) nor psychopathic personalities who might not have cared about the person in distress or actually found it interesting. DG

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