The Danger of Being Obedient – The Stanley Milgram Experiment

The Stanley Milgram experiment is perhaps one of the most famous and controversial psychological studies done on the subject of obedience. The idea struck psychologist Stanley Milgram back in 1961, when a World War II German Soldier named Adolph Eichmann was tried. According to Eichmann, he ordered the deaths of millions of Jews simply because he was following order. Rousing Milgram’s interest, he wanted to understand how far obedience could take a person.

The experiment

  • Milgram posted a newspaper ad to find 40 male subjects who would participate in his experiment. For their participation, Milgram would compensate them with $4.50 each (and $4.50 worth a lot more in 1961 than it does today)
  • The study involves three characters – the experimenter (a confederate), the teacher (the test subject), and the student (a confederate).
  • The student was to learn a list of word pairs and would later be tested by the teacher. For every incorrect answer, an electric shock would be delivered to the student via the electrodes attached to his body.
  • The test subjects were made to believe that they were randomly assigned the role of the teacher but of course, this was not the case.
  • The teacher and the student were placed in a separate rooms. The teacher had an electric shock generator, in which the switches were labeled “slight shock” all the way to “extremely severe shock” (450 volts).
  • Milgram wanted to understand how far each teacher would go to follow instructions given by the instructor.
  • The student would deliberately give wrong answers and as a result, the teacher was expected to deliver the electric shocks. At times the teacher was hesitant to do so, the instructor would give him instructions and strongly suggested him to continue.

The Results and What They Mean

The results were shocking – all of the test subjects delivered up to 300 volts, while two-thirds or 65% of them proceeded to the maximum – 450 volts. These results had sparked many psychological studies to either prove or disprove the results.

When it comes to the result of his experiment, Stanley Milgram came up with two states of behavior that people generally have whenever they are in a social situation:

  • The autonomous state, in which a person performs actions of his own will, and owns up to the responsibility of any consequences of such actions
  • The agentic state, in which a person allows another to control his actions. Consequently, he does not claim responsibility for any subsequent effects of his actions, and pass them on to the person who directed him.


For a person to be in an agentic state:

  • The person who gives orders is perceived to be a person who is qualified to do such
  • The person who follows the order believes that the one who directs him will take responsibility for any consequences

The two criteria above were supported in the Stanley Milgram experiment because:

  • Status of location: Test subjects believed that the study was safe because it was being conducted at Yale University
  • Status of authority figure: The experimenter wore a laboratory coat, which suggests knowledge and expertise, making it easier for the participants to follow their orders
  • Proximity of authority figure: The presence of the experimenter gave the test subject the feeling that he is not solely responsible for what could happen to the student

* indicates required