The Dilemma of Obedience    




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Evaluation of Milgramís work

Stanley Milgram


It is traditional to split this into two main section

1. Methodology or validity

2. Ethics.

1a. Experimental (or internal) Validity

By now you should know what validity means!  Did the participants taking part in the study actually believe that they were administering electric shocks to Mr Wallace?  Orne & Holland (1968) believe that participants volunteering to take part in psychological studies must realise that the real purpose of the study is going to be disguised.  In this case why would the experimenter stand by and let poor old Mr Wallace cry out in pain without stepping in.  More to the point, why isnít the experimenter delivering the shocks?  Why pay a volunteer to do the job instead.  Orne and Holland make a number of claims, each of which is refuted by Milgram:

Orne & Holland's claim

Milgram's defence

The participants realised that the set up was a sham.

70% of participants in later studies report afterwards that they thought it was genuine.

The participants obeyed because of the lab conditions, simply doing as was expected of them.

This criticism seems to be missing the point.  Milgram was trying to show that the situations we find ourselves in could cause obedience.

Obedience was due to payment in advance and the idea that a contract had been entered into.

This does happen in everyday life.  Presumably the SS were paid for their services in WW II.


However, the following procedure would seem to support Milgram:

Sheridan & King (1972) carried out a similar procedure but used a puppy as the Ďlearner.í  The puppy carried out a learning exercise and each time it made a mistake it would receive an electric shock.  Participants, acting as the teacher, were led to believe that the shocks were becoming increasingly severe, as in Milgramís original procedure.  In fact the puppy was getting a small shock each time, just enough to make it jump and show obvious signs of receiving a shock.  Eventually the puppy receives an anaesthetic to put it to sleep, and the participants think theyíve killed it.  54% of male and ALL of the female participants continue to give it electric shocks up to the maximum!  The participants can be in no doubt that the puppy is receiving the shocks, so answering Orne & Hollandís first criticism. 


1b. Ecological (or external) Validity

Can the results of the experiment be generalised to situations outside of the laboratory setting?  Since the person in the white lab coat was an authority figure, then Milgram believes that it does.  After all he was trying to show that we do obey such figures in real life.

The next two studies (Bickman and then Holing) show that obedience as described by Milgram does seem to take place in more natural settings too:

Bickman (1974).  People in the street are asked to pick up a piece of litter or stand on the other side of a bus stop etc.  The person doing the asking is dressed either as a milkman, a civilian or a guard.  People were more likely to obey the guard, showing, presumably, the power of uniform or of perceived legitimate authority. 

Hofling (1966)

set up an experiment (natural, field or quasi?), in which a nurse receives instructions over the phone, from a Dr Smith, to administer 20mg of a drug Astroten to a patient Mr. Jones.  This instruction breaches three rul

  1. The nurse did not know Dr Smith

  2. The nurse did not receive written authority

  3. 20mg was twice the maximum dose suggested on the bottle.

Despite this, 21 out of 22 nurses were prepared to administer the drug.  Since this is a natural setting, it does have ecological validity, and as such is telling us something about obedience in real life.

For future reference, there are clearly ethical problems with the study:

a.   Nurses were deceived

b.   There was no consent

c.       No right to withdraw.

However, Rank and Jacobsen (1975) carried out a similar study on nurses but found very different results; this time only 2 out of 18 nurses obeyed the instruction to administer a dose of valium.  On this occasion the drug was familiar, and the nurses were able to consult other nurses.  A more natural situation than the one Hofling provided for his unwitting participants. 



Ethics of Milgram (aaggghhh overload, overload!!!)


By who

Milgramís defence


Measures were not taken to protect participants from physical or psychological harm


Baumrind (1964)

The results were unexpected.  Before starting Milgram asked professionals for their opinions.  Most thought the teacher would stop when the learner protested.

The right to withdraw from the experiment was not made clear to participants. 

Use of phrases such as ĎYou have no choice, you must go on,í would suggest participants did not have a choice.


Coolican (1990)

Milgram believes that they did have the right to withdraw, in fact, some did.


The experiment should have been stopped.


Milgram did not believe the distress caused was sufficient to warrant stopping!

Although participants gave their consent to take part, this was not informed since they did not know the purpose of the study or what it would entail.  Deception was used.


Baumrind (1964)


Milgram refers to deception as Ďtechnical illusions.í  Without them the experiment would have been meaningless

Other points worth making in an essay on ethics of Milgram.

Milgram's main defence centres on the debrief that all participants received afterwards.  During this participants were reassured about their behaviour:

  • They were reunited with an intact Mr Wallace

  • They were assured that no shocks had been given

  • They were assured that their behaviour was normal.  (Picture the scene, 'its okay Mr Smith, we all have maniacal, homicidal tendencies and feel the need to electrocute to death mild mannered accountants with dickey tickers!').

  • They all received a full report of the procedure and findings

  • They were all sent a questionnaire.

The questionnaire:  a staggeringly high 92% returned the questionnaire. 

  • 84% were glad or very glad that they'd taken part.

  • 74% claimed that they'd learned something of 'personal importance.'

  • Only 2% were sorry or very sorry that they'd taken part.

One year later, 40 of the participants were interviewed by a psychiatrist who concluded that none of them had suffered long term harm.

Many psychologists are still uneasy about the procedure.  Wrightman & Deux (1979) say that Milgram reports with awe and relish the extreme degrees of tension that his subjects experienced.  For example: they would 'sweat, stutter, tremble, groan, bite their lips and dig their fingernails into their flesh.  Full blown, uncontrollable seizures were experienced by three subjects.'

It is also worth mentioning that Milgram did not breach ethical guidelines, since they did not exist at the time!  In fact it was Milgram's study that was largely responsible for the introduction of such codes of conduct.

Each year Aronson (1988) says he asks his University students how many of them would behave like Milgram's participants.  Typically 1% believes they would!  This figure is the same as 1963, when, before conducting his experiment, Milgram asked students and psychologists to predict how many would deliver 450 Volts.

In 1965 Milgram was awarded the prize for 'Contribution to Psychological Research' by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Do Milgramís findings stand up in practice?

Mandel (1998) used the case of Major Wilhelm Trapp of the Reserve Police Battalion 101 to dispute the validity of Milgramís findings.  In 1942 in the Polish village of Jozefow Major Trapp was given orders to take a large group of Jews to the edge of the village and have them shot.  Although the members of his battalion were given the chance to say no and be assigned to other duties, few did and the massacre went ahead.  Over a four year period the Police Battalion 101 killed 38,000 Jews.

Compare this to Milgramís findings:

Proximity to victims reduces obedience (Moving Mr Wallace closer)

The members of the battalion walked to the edge of the village with the victims and shot them face to face.

Proximity of authority figure is needed for obedience (Experimenter phoning in)

No authority figures were present.  The soldiers walked to the killing site with no others except the victims

Presence of allies reduces obedience (Other disobedient stooge present)

Some of the battalion dropped out (didnít obey) and the others were aware of this and presumably aware that they could do the same.

Allowing discretion (Letting teacher decide the shock to give)

Analysis of the massacre suggests that every step was taken to ensure that every Jew was killed.  In this case no steps were taken to reduce suffering despite the soldiers not being directly supervised. 

Next page

Police Battalion 101

Beginning in mid-July 1942 with the round-up of Jews in the town of Jozefow near Bilgoraj, members of Police Battalion 101 were utilized for the mass shooting of Jewish civilians in towns throughout the Lublin district.

Police Battalion 101's participation in the Final Solution culminated in the Erntefest [Harvest Festival] massacre of November 3-4, 1943. In the course of this killing action, perhaps the largest directed against Jews of the entire war, an estimated 42,000 Jewish prisoners at the Lublin district concentration camps of Majdanek, Trawniki and Poniatowa were wiped out. It is estimated that during the period between July 1942 and November 1943, Police Battalion 101 was alone responsible for the shooting deaths of more than 38,000 Jews and the deportation of 45,000 others.

In the final sixteen months of the war Police Battalion 101 was engaged in actions against partisans and enemy troops. Almost all battalion members survived the collapse of the Third Reich and returned safely to Germany. In the immediate postwar period only four members of the unit suffered legal consequences for their actions in Poland. These policemen, who were arrested for their part in the killing of 78 Poles in the town of Talcyn, were extradited to Poland in 1947 and tried the following year. Two were sentenced to death and two to prison. It was not until 1962, however, that Reserve Police Battalion 101 as a whole came under investigation and legal prosecution by the Office of the State Prosecutor in Hamburg. In 1967 fourteen members of the unit were put on trial. Though most were convicted, only five received prison terms (ranging from five to eight years), which were subsequently reduced in the course of a lengthy appeals process.