Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


“To obey or not to obey, that is the question.” 

Stanley Milgram publishes Behavioral Study of Obedience

This year, Stanley Milgram published the article “Behavioral Study of Obedience,” a short piece published in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology that was based on a study of obedience to authority. The results of this experiment, which soon became a classic in this topic, were alarming. They revealed the “bad” side of human nature, and explained the conditions under which ordinary people are willing to cause pain to their fellow human beings for the sake of following orders. Milgram’s study also helps us to explain how obedience to authority on a societal level can result in traumatic historical events such as holocausts and mass murders that reoccur in many parts of the world in the name of ethnic cleansing and other ‘reasons’.

During the process of early socialization, children in most societies are extensively trained to obey authority. In many cases, this training ensures that children are kept away from dangerous situations and that they are more controlled and co-operative with caregivers. As Bandura (1973) notes, obedience is rewarded and lack of compliance is punished since early socialization. A certain degree of obedience does serve a purpose in society and is necessary for a democratic order, especially if the laws that govern that society are fair and well regarded by most citizens. However, we must understand the power of authority and recognize its limitations so that we can raise legitimate questions to move society forward.

In Milgram’s experiment, conducted in a lab in Yale University, subjects were “naïve” participants who were told that the study they had responded to was related to learning and memory. There was always a “confederate” who was an actor while the subjects  were “naïve” since they were unaware of the real purpose of the study. The process was rigged so that the confederate would always end up as the learner and the subject was the one who must teach and administer shock of increased intensity each time the learner made an error. Shock intensity started at “slight shock” rising gradually by 15 volts to “Moderate”, “Strong” , “Danger: Severe Shock” and finally to “XXX” . The subject watched the learner (actor) being strapped into a chair where the shock would be felt. Moreover, the subject was also given a sample shock of low voltage to further authenticate the experiment. The subject was told that although painful the shocks would not harm the learner.

The role of the experimenter was played by a 31 year old high school teacher who appeared stern and authoritative.   Forty men of different professions ranging from skilled and unskilled blue collar, white collar workers and professionals were selected for the experiment. They were each paid $4.50 for their participation but were also told that the payment was simply for coming to the laboratory and the money was theirs irrespective of what occurred after they arrived.

Prior to the study, 12 senior psychology majors were asked to predict the outcome of hypothetical subjects. The university students thought that a maximum of 3% would go the “XXX” (450 volts). Milgram’s colleagues predicted that most subjects would stop at “Very Strong Shock” (195-240 volts).

The results, however, showed that 26 out of 40 subjects (65%) went to “XXX” (450 volts). Of the remaining 14 subjects, 5 of them terminated the experiment at “Intense Shock” (300 volts), 8 stopped at “Extreme Intensity Shock” (315 to 360 volts), and 1 stopped at “Danger: Severe Shock” (375 volts).

When the subjects protested that they might be hurting the learner, the experimenter asked them to continue with statements that were called “prods” numbered 1,2,3, and 4 so as to standardize the experiment. Prod 1 was “please continue” or “please go on”; Prod 2 was “the experiment requires that you continue”; Prod 3  was “It is absolutely essential that you continue” and Prod 4 “you have no other choice, you must go on”. After Prod 4 the experiment was terminated. With the “prods” the experimenter asserted authority over the subject.

Under pressure, subjects were observed to “sweat, tremble, stutter, bite their lips, groan and did fingernails into their flesh” and “nervous laughing fits”. One person was observed to have full blown uncontrollable seizures as a reaction to stress at which point the experiment was terminated. Of the 26 that went to the end, there were sighs of relief, rubbing of fingers over eyes or fumbling for cigarettes.  Some subjects had remained uncanningly calm throughout the experiment and showed minimal signs of tension.

Two unexpected results emerged from the experiment. One finding relates to the sheer strength of obedience which took precedence over the fundamental moral learning of the subjects about not hurting another human being. It is clear that the subjects were against what they believe yet they continued to do so under perceived authority. The second finding rests on the results that despite incredible tension subjects did not simply terminate the experiment.

Milgram manipulated psychological distance in later studies based on the same premise. When the victim’s cries could be heard through an open door, more subjects were likely to discontinue the experiment compared to the original results. Rather than being out of sight the subject was seated next to the learner (confederate) and was asked to physically press the victim’s hand upon the shock electrode and required to hold it down while the victim was shocked. In this situation, disobedience was at 70%. If the urging of the experimenter was given through a telephone (in the original experiment, the experimenter was physically present), the subjects were less likely to be obedient.  Hence, psychological distance or the degree to which the victim is dehumanized had varied results on the outcome.

One of Milgram’s subjects explained: “You really begin to forget that there is a guy out there, even though you can hear him. For a long time I just concentrated on pressing the switches and reading the words” (cited in Gleitman 1986:401). The dehumanization of the victim by use of language is a common theme of war. War terminology in the World War II included such terms as “final solution” (the mass murder of six million people) and “special treatment” (death by gassing). The Gulf war in 1991 included such terms as “smart bombs” (good targets that still kill people) and “new world order”. The televised version displayed an inanimate computer game and this distanced our minds from the people that died. The war in Afghanistan dehumanized human casualties with terms such as “price of war” or “collateral damage” (loss of human life whether or not the bombs reached their target).

 “Deindividuation” is a psychological phenomenon that plays a role in instances of war and ethnic cleansing. When a nazi soldier acted on his orders he did so as the faceless emissary of the government. His uniform contributed to anonymity and he was deindividuated. He did not feel responsible for his actions. In the Argentina of the 1970s, 30,000 people were kidnapped, tortured and ‘disappeared’ by the military and the paramilitary, and in the trial that took place in the early 1980s the main argument advanced by the task forces was that they were obeying orders from their authorities, and that such principle was above their own moral considerations. Most of them were pardoned based on that principle, which was called “obediencia debida” (due obedience).

Similarly, in Milgram’s experiment some subjects felt that they were acting as agents of the experimenter, and therefore the pain caused to the learner was the responsibility of the experimenter and not theirs.

Blaming the victims is another way of alleviating the responsibility of the agent. When the British forced a number of civilians to walk by a Nazi camp, one of the citizens was heard to have said “what terrible criminals these prisoners must have been to get such punishment” (Gleitman 1986: 402).

Cognitive theories suggest that such extreme attitudes toward obedience do not come about quickly. The process is gradual and occurs in small steps, very much like the Milgram experiment where the voltage of shock was increased in small intervals.  This is true of draftees who undergo basic training at first and are gradually taught the rules of obedience. Not following orders is a strongly punishable act.  Instant obedience is doctrined into soldiers who will at the end of training follow commands to kill in an instant. At the onset of training, if the soldier was asked to point a rifle at a human, they would likely refuse. 

Publication of Milgram’s findings caused an uproar in the scientific community. Some of those who protested argued that  Milgram must have used “flawed” subjects. Milgram’s used of deception was highly criticized on ethical grounds, as it was argued that his methods might have been “personally damaging” to the subjects. At the end of the experiment the subjects were informed of the real purpose of the study and sufficient sensitivity was exercised toward them to the satisfaction of the researcher. There appeared to be no irreparable damage. The American Psychological Association banned the “unwarranted use of deception” in similar research (p.242 McConnel and Gorenflo).

In conclusion, obedience is a highly desirable trait in human social interaction and this has a large impact on the order in society. However, Milgram’s experiment makes one aware of the need to be critical of obedience so that we keep our actions in balance. It demonstrates that group pressure and conformity can also have detrimental effects in causing racial stereotyping or the dehumanization of victims in instances of war or criminal activity. It opens our eyes to the limitations of obedience and creates an awareness that sometimes resistance to conformity in society is needed to bring about change. In the final analysis, experiments such as these demonstrate the need for critical thinking and for strong human values, which raises the need to question conformity and to bring forth new ideas that can contribute to a better understanding of our society and our fellow human–beings. As C. P Snow once noted, “When you think of the long and gloomy history of man, you will find more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have been committed in the name of rebellion” (cited in Bandura 1973:175).


Bandura, A. 1973 Aggression: A social learning analysis, Prentice-Hall Inc.

Gleitman, H. 1986 Psychology, Penguin Books Canada Ltd.

McConnell, J. V. , Gorenflo D. W. 1989 Classical Readings in Psychology, Holt, Rinehart and Winston Inc.

Milgram, S. 1963 “Behavioral Study of Obedience,” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 67, 371-378.


Prepared by Shehna Jabbar (OISE/UT), 2002

Citation: Author (2002). Title. In Daniel Schugurensky (Ed.), History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century [online]. Available: (date accessed).

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