The Impact of Milgram's Obedience Studies on Social Psychology

The detached, objective manner in which Milgram reports the emotional disturbance suffered by his subject contrasts sharply with his graphic account of that disturbance. (Baumrind 1964)

Milgram's study used a design to match the significance of the question under investigation. It incorporated an imaginative and innovative experimental design, one that bordered on compelling theater. However, both the importance of the question and the creativity of the design would have been quickly forgotten had the study not produced such dramatic findings, a level of obedience that no one had predicted.. (Benjamin, 1998, p. 17)

The Controversey of Milgram's Study

Between 1960 and 1963, Stanley Milgram conducted a study to determine the effect of authority on compliance. His method was simple: a volunteer, told that he was participating in a teaching study, was instructed to administer a word quiz to another subject designated as a learner. Whenever the learner gave an incorrect answer on the quiz, the subject was instructed to administer an electric shock to him, and each successive shock increased in intensity. Unbeknownst to the subject, the learner was an actor, who feigned rapidly escalating pain with each shock. When the subject asked the experimenter if the study should be terminated because of the learner's cries for mercy, the experimenter calmly instructed him to continue. Milgram recorded how many subjects refused to continue the experiment, and the manner in which they did. Several variations of this experiment were conducted: one placed the subject in a different room than the learner, in another the subject was seated next to him. In one scenario, the subject was able to communicate with the learner over a speakerphone connected to a different room; 62.5% of the subjects in this setup administered the maximum shock voltage, despite pleads (and finally a grim silence) from the learner (Milgram, 2009, p. 35). The data from the obedience study have been widely referenced in both academia and pop culture. Jerry Burger of Santa Carla University, who recently replicated the experiment, called it "arguably the most well-known social psychological research inside or outside the field" (Burger, p. 1).

The study was controversial from the moment it was published (Milgram, 2009, p. xiv). Milgram was interested in reproducing the conditions for obedience that enable systematic murder and subjection to impersonal authority figures (2009, p. 137). In the preface he questions, "whether there is any connection between what we have studied in the laboratory and the forms of obedience we so deplored in the Nazi epic" (2009, p. xx). Attempting to re-create similar conditions in a lab setting, his volunteers were instructed to harm another person by an incontestable authority. Some subjects experienced great anxiety, and he observed "extreme levels of nervous tension in some Ss. Profuse sweating, trembling, and stuttering were typical expressions of this emotional disturbance" (Benjamin, 2009, p. 14). Because of ethical concerns the experiment raised, many studies that replicated Milgram's followed were drastically modified to protect the subjects from extreme distress (Burger, p. 2). Milgram's study is both illuminating and controversial; it is difficult to say if the study's contested treatment of subjects is justified by its academic value.

It may be argued that Milgram's experiments were not necessary at all, because the information they provided can be observed outside the lab. This is a compelling counterpoint to the idea that the study's usefulness excuses Milgram's method. He acknowledged that the influence of an authority can be seen in "facts of recent history and observation in daily life" (Milgram, 2009, p. 1). However, by conducting an empirical study of obedience under authority, Milgram achieved more than merely confirming a common observation. He provided a documented unprecedented instance of a ubiquitous social phenomenon. He created a solid analogy by which human action could be examined and understood--whether it be in a lab, during a war, or under a fascist regime.

Milgram's Impetus

In the paper The Impact of Milgram's Obedience Studies on Personality and Social Psychology, Benjamin and Simpson note that Milgram's studies represented changing attitudes in social psychology. During the 1950s, many studies focused on "internalistic" explanations, which placed a heavy emphasis on individuals' personalities and temperaments: ..several large-scale research projects were seeking to determine whether 'personality types' might help us understand and explain why certain people committed some of the atrocities witnessed during World War II)" (Benjamin, 2009, p. 16).

Benjamin and Simpson cite the legthly and substantial study Authoritarian Personality as an example. Authoritarian consists of five volumes of research directed by the Department of Scientific Research, established by the American Jewish Comittee (Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, & Sanford, 1950, p. vi). The work compares the different anti-semitism attitudes of over a thousand Americans (Adorno et al, 1950, p. 21). The research contains excruciating detail of these subjects' political views, ideology, religion, intelligence, criminality, and genetics (Adorno et al, 1950, p. 9). They provide a table of "Anti-semitism Subscale Attitudes", with items ranging from "In order to maintain a nice residential neightborhood it is best to prevent Jews from living it in" to "The Jewish problem is so general and deep that one often doubts that democratic methods can ever solve it" (Adorno et al, 1950, p. 65). These attempts at constructing a typology for anti-semetics sought to find some way of connecting a soldier's personality and background with his propensity to identify with the Nazis when obliged (Benjamin, 2009, p. 16).

But Milgram refused this explanation that was based on individuals' characteristics. When he asked his subjects why they obeyed the experimenter's instruction long after the learner begged for it to end, they typically replied, "I wouldn't have done it by myself. I was just doing what I was told" (Milgram, 2009, p. 8). This response shows disconnect between the subjects' personal ethics and their actions. Does this mean their reply is a baseless alibi to pardon immoral conduct? Milgram says that this response, "that was heard time and time again in the defense statements of those accused at Nuremberg" (Milgram, 2009, p. 8), is a legitimate justification. In Obedience to Authority, Milgram hardly acknowledges the effect of personal qualities on compliance to a given situation. He uses the prase agenic state to describe a person who circumstantially acts as an agent to an authority figure. Milgram disregards the intricacy of the Authoritarian Personality research in favour of his explanation of agency:

Although a person acting under authority performs actions that seem to violate standards of conscience, it would not be true to say that he loses his moral sense ... Rather, his moral concern now shifts to a consideration of how well he is living up to the expectations that the authority has of him. (Milgram, 2009, p. 8)
Benjamin and Simpson describe this theory as a "powerful demonstration that 'strong' situations can and sometimes do overwhelm personality variables" (Benjamin, 2009, p. 16). Volumes of personality typology could not provide as much help as Milgram's concept of agenic states.

Applying Agency

Christopher Browning's book Ordinary Men tells the story of a German police battalion which was ordered by the Third Reich to "resettle" thousands of Polish civilians toward central Poland-- away from the western region annexed by Germany (p. 38-39). In the summer of 1942, the battalion's leader ordered them to relocate all abled-body men in the village of Józefów southward. This meant the battalion was to execute all women, children, and elderly of the 1,800 Jews living there (2009, p. 55). They encircled the village in the forest surrounding it, so that they were able to catch those that fled, and execute them on the spot (2009, p. 57). The police obeyed, but with some reservation. The commanding officer avoided the forest—the site of the executions—instead staying away in his office and in the village. One policeman commented,

Major Trapp was never there. Instead he remained in Józefów because he allegedly could not bear the sight. We men were upset about that and said we couldn't bear it either. (Browning, 1998, p. 58)

After executing three Jews at point-blank range, one policeman intentionally misfired away from his next target. He then ran into the woods away from the execution site and vomited, remaining there for some hours before returning (Browning, 1998, p. 67-68). Many of his comrades simply refused their orders, which went unnoticed due poor coordination of the operation (Browning, 1998, p. 65-66). One decided to withdraw after conversing with a mother her daughter who were to be executed (Browning, 1998, p. 67).

Through these recollections taken from first-hand accounts, Browning successfully portrays the policemen not as inhuman brutes, but people with common ethics and morals. But if not inherently misguided agents, what else could have driven one police battalion to successfully murder hundreds of Jews? Browning cites Milgram's experiments to explain this moral anomaly:

If the multifaceted nature of authority at Józefów and the key role of conformity among the policemen are not quite parallel to Milgram's experiments, they nonetheless render considerable support to his conclusions, and some of his observation are clearly confirmed. Direct proximity to the horror of the killing significantly increased the number of men who would no longer comply. On the other hand, with the division of labor and removal of the killing process to the death camps, the men felt scarcely any responsibility at all for their actions. (1998, p. 176)


Personality typology could not have explained Browning's research as eloquently as Milgram's explanations. Through his studies, Milgram provided an innovative approach to considering human behaviour as situation-dependent. He does not dismiss the importance of an individual's psychology on their action, but suggests that other conditions are equally important. As Browning's research on a German police battalion indicates, Milgram's ideas are of great value. Although the concept of conditional submission to authority has long been observed outside of psychological studies, its confirmation and drastic influence was lucidly demonstrated in the Obedience to Authority study. The question of whether it was ethically justified, however, remains a separate debate.

Works Cited

Adorno, T. W., Else Frenkel-Brinswik, Daniel J. Levinson, and R. Nevitt Sanford. The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Harper & Brother, 1950. Print.

Baumrind, Diana. "Some Thoughts on the Ethics of Research: After Reading Milgram's "Behavioral Study of Obedience"" AP 19: 421-23. Web.

Benjamin, Jr., L. T., and J. A. Simpson. "The Power of the Situation: The Impact of Milgram's Obedience Studies on Personality and Social Psychology." AP 64(1) (2009): 12-19. Print.

Browning, Christopher R. Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. New York: Harper Perennial, 1998. Print.

Burger, J. M. "Replicating Milgram: Would People Still Obey Today?" AP 64(1): 1-11. Print. Milgram, Stanley. Obedience to Authority. Haper Perennial, 2009. Print.