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The Milgram Obedience Studies (1963 & 1965). And “Milgram Revisited” (Jerry Burger, 2009). Experimental Question. Under what conditions will people carry out the commands of an authority figure and when will they refuse to obey?

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The Milgram Obedience Studies(1963 & 1965)

And “Milgram Revisited”

(Jerry Burger, 2009)

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Experimental Question

  • Under what conditions will people carry out the commands of an authority figure and when will they refuse to obey?

    • Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral Study of Obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-378.

    • Milgram, S. (1965). Some conditions of obedience and disobedience to authority. Human Relations, 18, 57-76

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Milgram Study Setup

  • Subjects were told that they were participating in a study on the effect of punishment on memory

  • One “participant” in the study - the “learner” (“Mr. Wallace” - real name Bob McDonough) was a confederate of Milgram and one was the true subject - the “teacher”

  • The teacher was given a list of “paired associates”

    • Examples

  • The “teacher” was told to shock the learner when the learner gave an incorrect response

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Milgram Study Setup

  • The “learner” is hooked up to what appears to be a shock generating machine with 30 switches labeled from “Slight Shock” to “Danger: Severe Shock”

  • The “teachers” were given a shock of 45 volts to convince them that the shocks were real

  • The “learner’s” response to the questions is scripted (and played back on a tape recorder)

  • At 150 volts the “learner” is heard asking that the experiment stop

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Milgram Study Setup

  • Experimenter prompts: if the “teacher” objected to continuing the experiment, the experimenter’s script included the following prompts:

    • Please continue (or “Please go on”)

    • The experiment requires that you continue

    • It is absolutely essential that you continue

    • You have no other choice, you must go on

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Milgram Study Results

  • Milgram: “There were powerful reactions of tension and emotional strain in a substantial proportion of the participants. Persons were observed to sweat, tremble, stutter, bite their lips…”

  • Remarks from two subjects:

    • “Is he banging? Is he hurt out there? Well, I don’t want to be responsible for anything that happens to him. No, I can’t go on with it. I don’t know whether he’s all right or not. I mean he may have a heart condition or something. I wouldn’t feel right doing it….I don’t see any sense to this…I just can’t see it

    • “You want me to keep going? You hear him hollering? What if something happens to him? I refuse to take responsibility….

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Milgram Study Results

  • The experimental setup was described to 40 psychiatrists. They predicted that no one would go beyond the 10th level (150 volts)

  • Actual results: 65% of the subjects obeyed the experimenter and shocked the “learner” all the way to 450 volts (“Severe Shock”)

  • No difference between men and women

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Milgram: What You May Not Have Heard

  • The “learner”, Mr. McDonough, died of a heart attack three years after the studies ended. His neighbor, who unsuccessfully tried to revive him using mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, had been a “teacher” in the Milgram studies and had administered “shocks” to Mr. McDonough just a few years earlier.

  • One of the “teachers” (who had gone all the way to 450 volts) was invited into a social psychology class to speak about his experience in the study. The students (who had already learned about the study) were nearly silent and stared at him with accusing and disbelieving eyes. He reminded the class that you never know what you might have done in that situation.

    • “Beyond the Shock Machine” - Gina Perry

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Why Did People Obey?(Burger, 2009)

  • Obedience to Authority

    • “…our culture socializes individuals to obey certain authority figures such as police officers, teachers, and parents.”

    • the perceived expertise of the experimenter contributed to the participants’ decision to follow the instructions (Morelli, 1983)

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Why Did People Obey?(Burger, 2009)

  • A Need for Consistency: The well-demonstrated need to act and appear in a consistent manner [think of cognitive dissonance studies] would have made it difficult for a participant to refuse to press the 195-volt switch after just pressing the 180-volt switch

    • Interviewee in “Beyond the Shock Machine” says, “If you had to push the 450 volt switch first, no one would do it”)

  • A Change in Self-Perception: agreeing to small requests, such as pressing the low-voltage switches, can change the way people think about themselves. Participants may have come to see themselves as the kind of persons who follow the experimenter’s instructions

  • Escalation of Commitment - “well, I’m in it this far, might as well go all the way…”

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Why Did People Obey?(Burger, 2009)

  • Limited Sources of Information in a Novel Situation

    • The subjects had never been in a situation anything like this before so they didn’t know how to act.

      • Gina Perry Interviewee, “This isn’t the way the world operates”

    • When we’re in novel situations we look to others to figure out how we should act. The only other person in the situation was the experimenter, and he was acting like nothing was wrong.

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Why Did People Obey?(Burger, 2009)

  • Responsibility had not been assigned to anyone

    • Most subjects asked who would be responsible

    • The experimenter stated that he would be responsible

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Milgram’s Additional Research Findings

  • Conditions that decreased obedience:

    • 1) Proximity of the “learner”:

      • obedience decreased if the learner was in the same room as the teacher

      • Obedience decreased if the teacher had to physically place the learner’s hand on a shock plate

      • Explanation: visual cues of someone else’s pain triggers an empathic response

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Milgram’s Additional Research Findings

  • Conditions that decreased obedience:

    • 2) Closeness of the authority figure

      • Usually the experimenter sat a few feet away from the teacher

      • Obedience decreased when the experimenter…

        • left the lab and gave the instructions by telephone

        • was never seen and instructions were left on a tape recorder

      • Also found: when the experimenter was in another room or when he was not present the “teachers” falsely reported how much shock they were giving the “learner”

      • Explanation: people will take a stronger stand when they do not have to encounter an authority figure face-to-face

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Milgram’s Additional Research Findings

  • Conditions that decreased obedience

    • 3) Prestige of the experimenter

      • The initial studies took place at Yale University with the experimenter dressed in a white lab coat

      • Obedience decreased when the study was moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut and conducted by the fictional “Research Associates of Bridgeport”

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Milgram Study Results

  • Conditions that decreased obedience

    • 4) disobedient models

      • When other “teachers” (who were actually confederates of the experimenter) sat with the teacher and disobeyed the experimenter, 90% of the real subjects disobeyed as well

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Milgram’s Conclusions

  • “The results, as seen and felt in the laboratory, are to this author disturbing. They raise the possibility that human nature, or more specifically the kind of characters produced in American democratic society, cannot be counted on to insulate its citizens from brutality and inhumane treatment at the direction of malevolent authority. A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do irrespective of the content of the act and without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority.”

    • Stanley Milgram, Some Conditions of Obedience and Disobedience to Authority

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Milgram’s Conclusions

  • If in this study an anonymous experimenter could successfully command adults to subdue a fifty-one year old man, and force on him painful electric shocks against his protests one can only wonder what government, with its vastly greater authority and prestige can command of its subjects.”

    • Stanley Milgram, Some Conditions of Obedience and Disobedience to Authority

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Replicating Milgram

  • Jerry M. Burger, Santa Clara University: Replicating Milgram: Will People Still Obey Today? American Psychologist, January 2009.

  • Burger replicates Milgram study, but with the following safeguards:

    • “The 150 volt solution”

    • 2-step subject screening process

    • Repeated reminders that subjects could withdraw at any time

    • Lower voltage “sample shock” (15 volts vs. 45 volts in Milgram’s study)

    • Debrief occurred seconds after the study ended

    • The “experimenter” was not an actor, but a clinical psychologist

  • Procedures were approved by the Santa Clara University IRB.

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Burger’s Safeguards

  • “The 150 Volt Solution”

    • After the “teacher” presses the 150 volt switch:

    • The “learner” is heard demanding to be released from the study

    • “Nearly every participant paused, and most turned to the experimenter to indicate verbally or nonverbally their reluctance to continue.” - Burger, 2009

    • The data:

      • 79% of the teachers who went past 150 volts continued all the way to 450 volts

      • “…the 150-volt switch is something of a point of no return.”

      • Since this is so, then why not have a shock machine with switches that go all the way to 450 volts, but stop the study if and when a “teacher” presses the 150 volts switch (he or she would probably have gone all the way to 450 anyway)

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Burger’s Safeguards

  • Two step subject screening process

    1) Questionnaires:

    A: Six questions (created by 2 clinical psychologists) were asked of potential participants. Examples:

    • “Have you ever been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder?

    • Are you currently receiving psychotherapy?

    • Are you currently taking any medications for emotional difficulties such as anxiety or depression?

    • Answer ‘yes’ to any question - you were excluded from the study

      B:Four scales: Those who made it through the above questions were then given the following scales to fill out:

    • Interpersonal Reactivity Index (extent to which you experience empathy for others - might you be less likely to obey?)

    • Beck Anxiety Inventory

    • Desirability of Control Scale (extent to which you like to “exercise control and to make their own decisions” - might these people be less likely to obey?)

    • Beck Depression Inventory

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Burger’s Safeguards

  • 2) Interviews:

    • Questionnaires filled out in step 1 were given to a licensed clinical psychologist, who conducted an interview with the subjects (average: 30 minutes)

    • “Of the 123 people who participated in this second screening process, 47 (38.2%) were excluded from the study by the clinical psychologist” - p. 6

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Burger’s Experimental Conditions

  • 1) Base Condition: pretty much the same experimental setup as Milgram:

    • Rigged drawing to determine “learner” and “teacher”

    • Confederate gets strapped into a chair with electrodes attached, etc. “Learner” explains that he had a “slight heart condition”

    • “Teacher” is sat down in front of the “shock machine” and given 25 word pairs (ex: “strong-arm”) and is

    • Pre-recorded sounds were played at pre-determined shock switches (ex: grunts)

    • 150 volt level: “Ugh. That’s all. Get me out of here. I told you I had heart trouble. My heart’s starting to bother me now. Get me out of here please. My heart’s starting to bother me. I refuse to go on. Let me out.”

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Burger’s Experimental Conditions

  • 1) Base Condition (con’t)

    • The “experimenter” gave the same prods as in the Milgram study:

      • “Please go on” or “Please continue”

      • The experiment requires that you continue”

      • It is absolutely essential that you continue”

      • You have no other choice, you must continue”

    • The experiment ended when either:

      • The teacher refused to continue

      • The teacher read the next item on the list of word pairs after having pressed the 150 volt switch (a behavior which would indicate that the subject would probably continue asking questions and shocking the learner and, in Burger’s estimation, would have continued all the way to 450 volts)

    • An immediate debriefing occurred

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Burger’s Experimental Conditions

  • 2) Modeled Refusal Condition

    • Same basic setup as in condition 1 except:

    • Two people would act as teachers: the real subject and, unknown to the real subject, a confederate of the experimenter who would also act as a teacher.

    • This “second teacher” was always chosen as “teacher 1” and he or she would begin asking the questions and administering the “shocks” while “teacher 2” (the real subject) watched.

    • After hearing the “ugh” sound when the 75 volt switch was pressed, the teacher/confederate said, “I don’t know about this”. The experimenter replied, “Please continue”. The teacher/confederate said, “I don’t think I can do this” and pushed his chair away from the shock machine.

    • The experimenter asked the real subject to pick up where teacher 1 had left off

    • The teacher/confederate sat quietly during the rest of the study, avoiding eye contact with the real subject.

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Burger’s Debriefing Vs. Milgram

  • Milgram Debriefing: “…participants were …told only that the shock generator’s labels of shock intensity were appropriate for small animals but not for humans and that the confederate had been receiving considerably milder shocks than his behavior indicated. Because Milgram anticipated a much more extensive series of experiments than Burger did, he maintained some degree of deception of most participants until he was ready to send them a full report on the intent of the research …”

    • Alan C. Elms, University of California, Davis, “Obedience Lite”, American Psychologist, January 2009 (p. 34)

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Burger’s Debriefing Vs. Milgram

  • Burger Debriefing: “As soon as the experimenter announced that the study was over, he told the participant that the shock generator was not real and that the confederate was not receiving electric shocks. The confederate entered the lab room at that point to assure the participant that he was fine….the participant was [then] escorted to a nearby room, where the principal investigator conducted a thorough debriefing.” - Burger, p. 7

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Burger’s Results

  • Base condition: 70% had to be stopped after administering the 150 volts (prediction: they would have gone on to 450 volts)

  • Modeled Refusal Condition: 63% had to be stopped after administering the 150 volts

  • No statistical difference between the two conditions (this is contrary to Burger’s prediction that modeled refusal would decrease obedience)

  • No statistical difference between men and women, and either no or minor effects for desirability for control or empathy

  • No statistical difference between Burger’s Base condition and the similar condition in Milgram’s study

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Burger’s Conclusions

  • “My partial replication of Milgram’s procedure suggests that average Americans react to this laboratory situation today much the same way they did 45 years ago….the same situational factors that affected obedience in Milgram’s participants still operate today.”- p. 8

  • “I cannot say with absolute certainty that the present participants would have continued to the end of the shock generator’s range at a rate similar to Milgram’s participants…. however, numerous studies have demonstrated the effect of incrementally larger requests.”- p. 8

  • “I interpret this high rate of obedience …as a demonstration of the power of …situational forces…”- p. 9

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Alan Elms Comment

  • He expected there to be less obedience in the Burger study because of how the world has changed since Milgram’s time:

    • Teachings of MLK and other social activists

    • “deceptive government efforts”

    • ‘60s: less trust in government

    • Video of the Milgram study:

      • Subjects had crew cuts

      • Many referred to the experimenter as “Sir”

    • Publicizing of Milgram’s study

    • “Mall Cop”

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Alan Elms Comment

  • Believes that Burger did not find a lower level of obedience because, in his effort to get IRB approval for the study, he excluded many participants who probably would not have obeyed:

    • People who had heard of the Milgram study

    • People who “might have a negative reaction to the experience”

      • These are exactly the people who would have disobeyed

    • Burger gave participants only a 15 volt shock instead of Milgram’s 45 volts

      • This “…may have led them to assume that the shock generator was not really that shocking.”

    • “For all these reasons, the participants who survived Burger’s double screening and who then faced the redefined shock board may have been considerably more obedient on average than an unscreened population…” - Elms, p. 35

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  • ABC National Radio program, “Beyond the Shock Machine”:


  • Burger, J.M. (2009). Replication milgram: woulud people still obey today?. American Psychologist, January 2009.

  • Elms, A. C. (2009). Obedience Lite. American Psychologist, January 2009.

  • Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral Study of Obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-378.

  • Milgram, S. (1965). Some conditions of obedience and disobedience to authority. Human Relations, 18, 57-76

  • Interview with Dr. Thomas Blass, Milgram’s biographer, on NPR:

  • New York Times:


  • Wikipedia:

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  • Videos:






  • Derren Brown: