Milgram's experiment

Milgram's experiment

Milgram's experiment
Submission to the authority

Milgram's experiment is an experiment in social psychology carried out between 1960 and 1963 at Yale University by psychologist Stanley Milgram. It assesses the degree of obedience of an individual before an authority which he judges legitimate (even if it goes against his values).

Purpose of the experiment

Demonstrate that it is the context and not the person who may be behind the inhuman actions. This experiment attempts, among other things, to scientifically explain Nazi behavior during World War II and the reason why certain people can live normally after having lived or carried out such atrocities (not to justify them but to understand them) .

The experiment

In the basic variant, three characters are part of the experiment: the teacher (male or female volunteer, 20 to 50 years old from all horizons paid at 4% of the average salary), the examiner and the student.

First, the volunteer is made to believe that the experience is about learning and memory. The goal is to teach the student a list of word associations (example: cabbage-star, fast-river ...). If the learner does not find the right association, the teacher inflicts an increasing electric shock over the errors.

The volunteer thinks that his role as teacher is drawn (while the draw is rigged and the student is an actor who receives no discharge).

Several variants exist (to define the real determining factors), but in the basic one the teacher is isolated from the student and can only hear his complaints. In addition there is only one authoritarian figure, that of the examiner.

In order not to stop the experiment too quickly, the examiner uses several injunctions (maximum 4) inviting the professor to continue the learning. If the professor, after these 4 injunctions, continues to rebel, the experiment stops. There are no contraindications to going out or rebelling, just invitations to continue more or less directives.

Finally, two questionnaires are distributed. The first just after the tests to collect feelings, listen to explanations and reassure the volunteer about the real purpose of the experience. The second, a year later, to analyze the potential psychological effects and give the results.


62.5% of the volunteers go to the lethal discharge of 450 Volts when the student has not answered for several questions and has asked several times to stop the experiment. The questionnaire filled out by the participants shows that it is notably the legitimacy of authority (scientific here), the discharge of responsibility (agentic state) and anxiety (I lower the tension and show that I am not doing well physically for stay calm) which “allowed” them to go against their values. Other variants also allow us to study the importance of conformism and other factors in submission to authority. These results are then unexpected and worrying (the forecasts were rather of 0.1% for the psychiatrists of the time) but also fascinating.

Biases and reviews

Several criticisms are made against the project:

These criticisms are for some countered by factual arguments by Stanley Milgram (non-representativeness, conviction in the experimental protocol…) in his book of 1974 which we invite you to read if you want to know more on the subject: Submission to authority . For others, the debate is sometimes still raging. The fact that the experience is unethical questions what ethics is (stopping at political correctness?) and the brake that it can bring to experiences in general.

Since then, the experience has permeated popular culture and has been repeated many times. Notably in 1979 in the film I ... comme Icare. In 2009, when France 2 produced the documentary by Christophe Nick entitled The Game of Death (a false broadcast, the Extreme Zone, then uses Milgram's protocol to study the power of television on a subject). And in 2015, when a film was released about Milgram's life: Experimenter.

Even if this experiment is disturbing because it suggests that humans can be easily manipulated. The study appears scientifically more valid (more replicates, a clearer protocol) than experiments like Stanford experiment and demonstrates exciting results.

And you, what would you have done?

Written by Maxou (04/22/2020)
Views: 1182

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