Behavioral study of obedience

This article represents a detailed account of the research carried out by Stanley Miligram at Yale University. The study was set to investigate the negative / destructive side of obedience. It involved more than 40 grown-up American volunteers representing diverse professions that ranged from laborers to great scholars. They were briefed on the research main objectives and selected to either play the role of experimenter, subject (teacher) or victim (learner).

The experiment carried out in Yale’s laboratory required a naive subject to administer electric “shock” gradually as a form of punishment to a victim each time the victim answered wrongly to a question. The shock generator was graded in intervals of 15 volts with thirty such grades. Each time the victim answered wrongly the subject was under instructions from the experimenter to press a button that connected to the graduated shock generator system that increased the voltage by a margin of 15 volts. The purpose of the study as explained by Milgram was to investigate how human beings respond to authority (power).

Though naturally it is difficult for immorally upright person to administer electric shock to another innocent person, it was interesting when milligram’s subjects went on to administer fatal shocks to the victims. This confirms that human beings are powerless and are likely to succumb to authority by obeying its orders even if they are against the fundamental moral standards. Answers to reflection question about the study. The Milgram experiment consisted of three key players i. e. the experimenter, the subject, and the victim.

Out of these three players it is the subject who plays the core part of the experiment. The subjects’ behavior is what Milgram was looking for in his bid to study the behavior of human obedience. For instance, if a subject chooses to obey the experimenters’ orders and go on with administering the electric shock then he or she is being obedient but if not he or she is defying orders.

According to (psychology 101, chapter 8, section 3) on obedience and power Milgram’s subjects behaved obediently because of the force of following the legitimate power i. e. they are under authority from the experimenter to administer electric shocks to their victims. Therefore when compared to Nazi’s extermination of Jews in death camps and gas chambers during the holocaust, their behavior is certainly not different.

They both knew that it is against the basic human morals to apply electric shock, or murder people by gassing but they play obedient to authority. Ethically any act that brings suffering/ uncomfortability to a human being is considered inhuman; however, this was not the case with Milgram’s experiment.

It would have been unethical if the subjects were in the first place forced to take part in the experiment, secondly the subjects were initially briefed on the authenticity of the electric shock –the shocks could not cause permanent tissue damage. Again, though the experiment was painful its discomfort was momentary compared with its worthy scientific gains. The subjects although paid to participate in the experiment, they were assured that the money was just for their coming to the laboratory and not what they did afterwards.

This research though carried out before establishment of Ethics Review Committees it drew numerous questions regarding its effects to the basic ethics and morals of human beings. But going by the previous brutal actions committed to people out of blind adherence to orders, a controlled study was needed to investigate the reasons as to why German police cops contrary to their conscience murdered millions of Jews under the command of Hitler. The research was purely based on willing volunteer basis; the participants were briefed on the effects of the electric shock to the victims.

It is therefore inclined to the advancement of worthwhile knowledge about learning and memory. It was conducted by reputable personnel (Yale University). The selection of participants was done fairly, and lastly the study was concluded by “debriefing” the participants in order to iron out any feelings of hatred on the part of the subjects and their victims. On the other hand the study had its dark side, the fact that subjects were ordered to administer electric shock to their victims which to them was morally degrading is one of the reasons many Ethics Review Committees would give out in trying to bar such an experiment.

Again, the screams and groans made by victims due to extreme tension are another reason these committees would give out. The research was most successful because the participants were deceived into believing that the selection of who plays subject or victim was fairly done. This was one of Milgram’s trump cards of making sure that the naive participants play the part of the subject in order to increase the credibility of the findings. Further the shock generator was not a real one; it was designed to cheat the public that indeed the victims were being shocked.

However the experiment can be conducted in a more “real” way in order to eradicate any element of doubt. This research could have been made real by using real teachers and real learners; a teacher is required to first give out strict instructions to the learners on the real consequences of answering wrongly to the given quiz. Real punishment (real electric shock or any other ethically acceptable punishment) may be administered to any wrong answer given, by doing that the learners will therefore try to obey (answer correctly or else get punished).

The act of “debriefing” after the experiment was necessary to eradicate any ill feelings towards the subjects. They were made to believe that no real shock was administered to the victims. However this was an exercise in futility because the subjects were free to discontinue with the shock administering, if they felt it was against their morals but the majority continued with the exercise. Therefore making them believe they had not administered real shocks was adding more psychological stress because they had already broken their morals and hence it was meaningless to convince them into believing.

According to (Sojourners magazine, by MacNutt, Francis 2004) also based on Milgram’s experiment, many ordinary people are afraid of being disapproved and therefore carry out acts which are incompatible with the basic moral standards. Therefore the chances of any subject defying experimenter’s orders are slim and therefore if I were one of the experimenters I would not hesitate but would have carried on with the electric shocking business. A more solid explanation to this is the case a confident businessman who almost succumbed to tension went ahead and executed all the experimenter’s orders.

Psychology generally deals with people’s behavior; some extreme behaviors were exhibited by morally upright people e. g. the perpetration of mass slaughter of Jews during the holocaust, the Hoffling hospital case whereby nurses ejected lethal doses of a “fictional” drug to their patients (Hofling C. K et al, 1966). Such behaviors needed to be studied in order to arrive at a generalization, therefore Milgram’s study was fundamental to social psychology, a study that investigates how people influence the beliefs, feelings, and behaviors of others.

The study findings gave a basis to many generalizations that makes up the core pillars of psychology. Again, the findings of this study are of great relevance to today’s human beings actions; other studies continue to be done with great reference to this study. For instance, obedience and power – a sub section of greater social psychology branch of psychology, draws its relevance from Milgram’s findings (psychology 101, chapter 8, section 3).

This carefully executed study send a very loaded message to numerous questions asked by people of sound reasoning on morals on why German corps unquestioningly obeyed Hitler’s orders by gassing millions of Jews, whether Germans are different from other people, why catholic bishops stressed obedience to Caesar and Christ among other questions. The answer to these questions was that human being are bound to behave obediently to orders given by people whom they identify with, and whom they perceive to hold a legitimate position higher than them.

Conclusions Milgram’s research on obedience to power is a milestone to the general study of psychology; however the study was purely based on a volunteer and wiling basis. This serves to discredit the study’s credibility, because the experimenters, subjects and victims are under no imminent consequence should they choose to defy the orders. For instance 14 subjects defied orders after their victims literally refused to respond to questions.

However, the major objective of the research was adequately achieved, although those participants who failed to play obedience negatively affected the full achievement of those objectives. Further deceiving the participants was not a strong point towards the overall credibility of the study; Milgram could have provided a more “real’ study with a morally acceptable punishment e. g. the case of Hoffling hospital (Hofling C. K et al, 1966).


Psychology 101, Obedience and power, available at: http://allpsych. com/psychology101/obedience_power. html, accessed on October 17, 2008

Sojourners magazine, by MacNutt, Francis 2004, available at; http://findarticles. com/p/articles/mi_qa4010/is_200410/ai_n9441346, accessed on October 17, 2008.

Behavior Study of obedience, by Milgram, Stanley, available at; http://www. wadsworth. com/psychology_d/templates/student_resources/0155060678_rathus/ps/ps01. html, accessed on October 17, 2008.

Hofling CK et al. (1966) “An Experimental study of Nurse-Physician Relationships”. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 141:171-180.

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