Case Study: Milgram Obedience

1. Describe Milgram's famous experiment for the class, and illustrate with relevant sections of the Milgram video (on reserve in Towne Library). What were the major findings of his study?

2. Were there any long-term consequences of the experiments to the subjects?

3. Develop an interesting ethical case that relates in some way to the use of deception in psychological research, using a present-day example (either real or fictionalized). Clearly state the ethical question to be addressed. The case should be ethically interesting, but it can be fictionalized.


1. Presentation. You have approximately a half hour for this.

a. The presentation should include a short (10-15 minute) discussion of the facts of the case.

b. Also in the presentation, lead the class through an analysis of the ethical case that you develop.

2. A 10-15 page paper that describes

(a) Describe the experiment. What were the major findings of the study? What were some of the consequences of the study to the subjects?

(b) Description and analysis of the ethical case that you developed for the class.

(c) In addition, in the report, summarize and evaluate the responses submitted by the class. What were the major issues that were raised by the class during the discussion? What ethical judgments did the students make in response to the ethical issues that you raised?

Find an article that will be suitable for assignment to the class as a whole


 Sources for Milgram Case:

Baumrind, D. 1964. Some thoughts on ethics of research: after reading Milgram's "Behavioral study of obedience." American Psychologist , 19, 421-23.

Kelman, H. C. 1967. Human use of human subjects: the problem of deception in social psychological experiments. Psychological Bulletin , 67, 1-11.

Milgram, S. 1963. Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and social Psychology , 67, 371-78.

Milgram, S. 1974. Obedience to Authority . New York: Harper and Row.

 see also Slater, Opening Skinner's Box (Norton, 2004)

(the following case was taken from University of Nevada, "Case Studies in Research Ethics: A Short Course" (http://vegeta.hum.utah.edu/~bbenham/Research%20Ethics%20Website/UGScs_Human_Experiments.htm)

Perhaps the most widely discussed example of deception in research design are the Milgram obedience studies conducted between 1960 and 1964. Stanely Milgram, a social psychologist at Yale University, was interested in explanations for the atrocities of German soldiers during World War II, especially conformity to orders that result in the mass death of thousands. He wanted to know if "following orders" was a genuine explanation and justification for actions that individuals would not ordinarily perform independently. Milgram couldn't reconstruct the situations of World War II, but he thought he could devise an analogue for examining whether people will follow orders under the presence of authority. He recruited several participants for a study that was allegedly on the effects of punishment on learning. When participants arrived, they were "randomly" assigned the role of "teacher" and another participant was assigned the role of "pupil." The task was for the teacher to teach a list of words to the pupil for a test of memory. However, the "pupil" was really a confederate of the experiment, and the assignment of roles was fixed so that the participant was always selected as the teacher. After selection, and with the help of the participant teacher, the pupil was strapped into a chair and an electrode was attached to the pupil's wrist. The teacher was then led into an adjoining room in which an elaborate electrical control panel was placed. Switches on the control panel were labeled with voltage indicators in increasing order from 15-450 volts. Several switches were also labeled as "Extreme-Intensity Shock," "Danger - severe shock," and the highest voltage switch was labeled "XXX." The teacher/participant was instructed to read a pre-selected, randomly ordered list of word pairs to test the pupil's ability to correctly match words. Whenever the pupil answered incorrectly, the teacher was instructed to throw one of the switches, starting at the lowest voltage and progressing to the higher voltages. The pupil, of course, was not actually receiving shocks, but he would act out preplanned mistakes and feign pain upon receiving the "shocks." About midway through the series of switches, the "pupil" would complain loudly that he wanted to stop, kick the wall, and scream. At the highest levels of shock the pupil would remain silent. All the while, the experimenter, wearing a white lab coat and carrying a clipboard, would instruct the teacher to continue with the "learning experiment." No answer was to be considered a wrong answer, and objections raised by the teacher/participant were answered with continued prompts to continue the experiment. Once the teacher reached the highest voltage switch or refused to go on after repeated prompts by the experimenter, the experiment was ended. At the end of the experiment, the teacher/participants were told the real purpose behind the experiment, that the voltage switches were not connected, and that the "pupil" was unharmed, never having received any shocks.

The actual experiment tested for how long the teacher/participant would obey the experimenter even though the "pupil" was in apparent pain. In an survey performed by Milgram prior to the study many predicted that people would be able to resist authority when ordered to do something ordinarily considered brutal, such as deliver painful shocks to others. At the most, people thought subjects would go no higher than 115 switch. The experimental results were quite different, however. The experiment showed a high degree of obedience to authority. A number of variations on this experimental design were used, but in a typical set-up of forty adult men who served as "teachers" in the experiment, all continued increasing the shock level until the "pupil" starting kicking the wall and yelling. However, even at that point, only five refused to continue and twenty-six of the forty men (65%) continued to increase the voltage level to the maximum intensity of 450 volts. Throughout the experiments, many subjects became highly agitated, exhibiting uncontrollable nervous reactions, such as giggling, shaking, sweating, and expressing concern about the health of the "pupil." The experiment demonstrated the extent to which ordinary people are capable of cruel or brutal behavior under the direction of an authority figure.


Milgram's obedience studies received high praise. In 1964 he was awarded the American Association for the Advancement of Science's (AAAS) prize for research, and his work was seminal for psychological studies about obedience to authority. However, his experiments were also highly criticized for being unethical. Diana Baumrind was one of the first to argue that Milgram's experiment did not provide adequate measures to protect participants from the stress and realization that they were capable of brutal actions; that the entire experiment should have been terminated at the first indication of discomfort in the participants; and that because of the intensity of the experience, participants would be alienated from future participation in psychological research. Others, such as H. C. Kelman, argued that the use of deception in these experiment were not necessary because other, non-deceptive methods could have obtained similar results. Milgram defended his work, arguing that adequate measures were indeed taken to protect participants; participants could withdraw from the study at any time; and that the deception was explained at the conclusion of the experiment. He argued that deception was necessary as evidenced by the mistaken predictions of the results. Furthermore, Milgram maintained there were no indications that the stress undertaken by participants had any lasting or injurious effects. In fact, in follow-up questionnaires and interviews, several months and a year after the experiment, showed that participants were not alienated from future research and that the experience was worthwhile, even positively life-alterning for them.