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Psychological research, obedience and ethics
Psychological research, obedience and ethics

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1.1 The set-up

It’s 1961 and you are arriving at the doors of the Psychology Department of the prestigious Yale University in the USA. The reason you are here is that you replied to an advert in the local paper asking for volunteers to take part in a study on memory. The advert (see Figure 1) offered a fee plus expenses and said that you would be paid on arrival at the laboratory.

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Figure 1 The advert used to recruit volunteers for Milgram’s study

As you walk through the doors you are met by a serious-looking man in a laboratory coat who turns out to be the experimenter. He introduces you to a genial middle-aged man who is described as a fellow volunteer. The experimenter explains that the study will involve one of the volunteers taking on the role of a ‘teacher’ and the other taking on the role of a ‘learner’. As part of the experiment, the ‘teacher’ will engage the ‘learner’ in a simple memory task. The ‘learner’ and the ‘teacher’ will be in different rooms and will communicate through microphones (see Figure 2). The experimenter reveals that the study is designed to investigate the effect of punishment on learning. The ‘teacher’ will be asked to administer an electric shock to the ‘learner’ every time the latter makes an incorrect response on the memory task.

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Figure 2 The layout of the experiment at the Yale laboratory

To select who will be the ‘teacher’ and who will be the ‘learner’, you draw slips of paper. You pick out the ‘teacher’ slip. You then watch as the ‘learner’ is strapped into a chair, and you hear the experimenter tell him that ‘although the shocks can be extremely painful, they cause no permanent tissue damage’. The experimenter now gives you a sample shock of 45 volts to show you what the ‘learner’ will experience during the study. The shock is unpleasant, but short of being painful.

The experimenter then takes you into the adjacent room and sits you down in front of an impressive-looking apparatus that will be used to administer the shocks (see Figure 3).

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Figure 3 The ‘shock generator’ used in Milgram’s experiment

The shock generator consists of a row of switches that run in 15 volt increments from 15 volts through to 450 volts. Under the label for each switch are some descriptive words, such as ‘slight shock’ (15 volts), ‘moderate shock’ (75 volts), ‘strong shock’ (135 volts), ‘very strong shock’ (195 volts), ‘intense shock’ (225 volts), ‘extremely intense shock’ (315 volts), ‘danger: severe shock’ (375 volts) and finally ‘XXX’ (435 volts). Suddenly, this looks quite serious and you probably hope that you don’t have to go very far up the scale. This is especially so given that you received the 45-volt shock, and you know that this was unpleasant enough. The last switch on the shock generator administers an electric impulse ten times as strong!

In the first phase of the experiment, the experimenter asks you, the ‘teacher’, to read a series of word pairs to the ‘learner’ who is expected to memorise them (for instance, ‘green-grass’ , ‘blue-sky’, ‘nice-day’). In the second phase, the test phase, you are asked to read out the first word of the pairs (e.g. ‘green’), followed by four possible responses (‘grass, hat, ink, apple’). If the ‘learner’ identifies the paired word correctly, you are to move on to the next word pair on the list. If the answer is wrong you have to tell the ‘learner’ the correct answer, indicate the level of punishment you are going to give them (starting with 15 volts), and flick the appropriate switch on the shock generator. For every subsequent incorrect answer, you are told to move one switch up the scale of shocks.

The experiment starts. To begin with everything is fine and the ‘learner’ gets most of the answers right. You have only used the shock generator a couple of times, and at this stage the shocks are mild. Then the ‘learner’ starts to get the answers wrong and you are moving up the shock scale into the ‘strong shock’ range. Although you cannot see the ‘learner’ you can hear him and as the shocks increase he starts to shout out. You have heard him grunt at the low voltage but now he is starting to ask to be let out. At 120 volts you hear him shout out in an agitated tone, complaining that he is in pain, and at 150 volts he asks to be released.

Suddenly, you feel uncomfortable and you decide to stop. The experimenter, the man in the grey coat, objects and asks you to carry on, in spite of the ‘learner’s’ protestations.

Question 1

What do you think you would do in this situation? At what point would you stop? 200 volts? 150 volts? Would you respond to the cries of your fellow volunteer or would you complete the job you agreed to do and carry out the instructions of the experimenter?

How many people do you think would continue to follow the orders? At what point do you think people would stop?

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Before Milgram carried out the study, he posed the same questions as in Question 1 to different groups of people, including ordinary members of the public, college students, psychologists and psychiatrists. He asked them to speculate on how far they thought most people would go if asked to administer shocks. Most ordinary people said that participants would generally refuse to administer shock, or at least not go very far beyond the point where the ‘learner’ experienced pain. Also, most said that participants should rebel, and that they should not continue beyond around 150 volts. Among the professional groups, there was widespread agreement that nobody taking part in the study go all the way.

You will be relieved to know that in the actual study carried out by Milgram, no person was hurt during the procedure, and the only actual shock administered was the 45-volt ‘tester’ given to the ‘teacher’. In fact, the whole situation was staged. The role of ‘experimenter’ was played by a 31-year-old biology teacher. The ‘learner’, presented as a ‘fellow volunteer’, was in on the deception and was merely playing the part. In reality, he was a 47-year-old accountant, who was chosen for the role because he appeared mild-mannered and likeable. He was not the sort of person one would want to see hurt. The drawing of slips of paper was fixed to ensure that the ‘naive participant’ was always cast in the role of the ‘teacher’, and the ‘shock generator’ was simply a simulator. The sounds (the moans and cries) that the participants heard were a recording played from the adjacent room. Importantly, however, the deception was so good that participants believed that they were actually administering shocks. So the study presented an ingenious way of discovering how far people would be willing to go, just because a psychological experiment on ‘the effects of punishment on learning’ demanded it. Most people like to think that they (and people around them) would not go very far. But what happened when Milgram actually placed people in that position?