Obedience: Milgram’s Study

– Obedience is a form of social influence in which an individual follows a direct order

– The person issuing the order is usually a figure of authority who have the power to punish the individual


– Milgram (1963) was looking to answer why such a high proportion of Germans supported hitler, why they followed his orders and slaughtered over 10 million Jews.

– He wanted to know if Germans were any different.

– Milgram recruited 40 male participants through newspaper adverts and flyers in the post.

– The participants recruited were aged between 20 and 50 years, and their jobs ranged from unskilled to professional.

– They were offered $4.50 to take part.


– Participants were told it was a study of how punishment affects learning

– When participants arrived at Milgram’s lab they were paid the money on the outset and were told they could leave at any point

– A confederate was introduced as another volunteer

– There was a rigged draw for their role, in which they ended up as the teacher and the confederate ended up as the ‘learner.’

– There was also an experimenter, dressed in a lab coat, played by an actor.

– The teacher was required to give the learner increasingly high electric shocks; little did they know that these shocks were actually fake.

– There were 30 shock levels that went to 450 volts.

– At 315 volts the learner pounded on the wall and after that there was no further response.

– If the teacher was unsure about continuing, the experimenter used a sequence of four standard prods to make them continue


– No participants stopped below 300 volts

– 12.5% stopped at 300 volts

– 65% continued to the highest level of 450 volts.

– Observations showed that some of the participants showed signs of extreme tension such as sweating and trembling.

– Whilst three even had ‘uncontrollable seizures.’

– All participants were debriefed, and assured that their behaviour was entirely normal.

– They were also sent a follow-up questionnaire; 84% reported that they felt glad to have participated.



Good External Validity

– Milgram’s study might at first appear to lack external validity because it was conducted in a lab.  

– However, the central feature of the situation was a relationship between the authority figure and the participant.

– The participants were in a real life situation of what they believed to be a different study

– And as Milgram was studying obedience between the participants and the authoritative researcher Milgram argued that a lab environment accurately reflected the authority relationships in real life.

– Other research supports this argument.

– For example, Hofling et al (1966) studied nurses on a hospital ward and found that levels of obedience to unjustified demands by doctors were very high. T

– This suggests that the processes of obedience to authority that occurred in Milgram’s lab study can be generalised to other situations.

– So his findings do have something valuable to tell us about how business operates in real life.

– Therefore, this study has high external validity


– A French TV show included a replication of Milgram’s study.

– The participants believed they were contestants in a pilot episode for a new game show and were paid to give (fake) electric shocks.

– 80% of the participants delivered the maximum shock level of 460 volts to an apparently unconscious man.

– This replication supports Milgram’s original conclusions about obedience to authority, and demonstrates that his findings were not just a one-off chance occurrence.


Low Internal Validity

– It is argued that the participants behaved the way they did because they didn’t really believe in the set up- they guessed it wasn’t real electric shocks.

– In which case Milgram was not testing what he tests to test so the study lacked internal validity.

– Perry’s 2013 recent research confirms this.

– She listened to tapes of Milgram’s participants and reported that many of them express their doubts about the shocks

– Therefore, the study lacked internal validity as tapes from the study confirmed many of the participants expressed doubts about the shock so Milgram was not studying what it set out to study