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The University of Winnipeg
Department of Rhetoric, Writing, and Communication
Academic Writing: Multidisciplinary
Due: March 27, 2019
Response Paper #3
Stanley Milgram, “Behavioral Study of Obedience”
AD pp. 269-282
Stanley Milgram’s “Behavioral Study of Obedience” is one of the best-known psychological
experiments of the twentieth century. Although several researchers, Milgram included, have
linked Milgram’s experiment to the Holocaust and the American-Soviet Union Cold War, an
aspect of Milgram’s first experiment on obedience is his reliance on a male “experimenter” as
the authority figure. This authority figure was the person who ordered the “teacher” to continue
shocking the “learner.”
➢ Using Stanley Milgram’s “Behavioral Study of Obedience” found in your textbook
and your viewing of “Stanley Milgram and Obedience” write a 500-word-essay in
which you discuss the ways in which Milgram’s study was or was not affected by the
gender of the “experimenter.” You could also discuss the fact that the participants in
Milgram’s first experiment were 40 men and no women and if this made a difference to
the study itself. Also, comment on anything else you find interesting about Milgram’s
first experiment and gender.
Behavioral Study of Obedience
very large number of persons obeyed orders.
Obedience is the psychological mechanism that
links individual action to political purpose. It is the
dispositional cement that binds men to systems of
authority. Facts of recent history and observation
in daily life suggest that for many persons obedience may be a deeply ingrained behavior tendency,
indeed a prepotent impulse overriding training in
ethics, sympathy, and moral conduct. C. P. Snow
(1961) points to its importance when he writes:
This article describes a procedure for the study of destructive obedience in the laboratory. It consists of ordering
a naive S to administer increasingly more severe punishment to a victim in the context of a learning experiment.
Punishment is administered by means of a shock generator with 30 graded switches ranging from Slight Shock to
Danger: Severe Shock. The victim is a confederate of the
E. The primary dependent variable is the maximum shock
the S is willing to administer before he refuses to continue
further. 26 Ss obeyed the experimental commands fully,
and administered the highest shock on the generator. 14
Ss broke off the experiment at some point after the victim
protested and refused to provide further answers. The procedure created extreme levels of nervous tension in some
Ss. Profuse sweating, trembling, and stuttering were typical expressions of this emotional disturbance. One unexpected sign of tension — yet to be explained — was the
regular occurrence of nervous laughter, which in some Ss
developed into uncontrollable seizures. The variety of interesting behavioral dynamics observed in the experiment,
the reality of the situation for the S, and the possibility of
parametric variation within the framework of the procedure, point to the fruitfulness of further study.1
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 ever
been committed in the name of rebellion. If you
doubt that, read William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of
the Third Reich. The German Officer Corps were
brought up in the most rigorous code of obedience
. . . in the name of obedience they were party to, and
assisted in, the most wicked large scale actions in the
history of the world [p. 24].
BEDIENCE is as basic an element in the
structure of social life as one can point to.
Some system of authority is a requirement of all
communal living, and it is only the man dwelling
in isolation who is not forced to respond, through
defiance or submission, to the commands of others. Obedience, as a determinant of behavior, is of
particular relevance to our time. It has been reliably established that from 1933–45 millions of innocent persons were systematically slaughtered on
command. Gas chambers were built, death camps
were guarded; daily quotas of corpses were produced with the same efficiency as the manufacture
of appliances. These inhumane policies may have
originated in the mind of a single person, but they
could only be carried out on a massive scale if a
While the particular form of obedience dealt
with in the present study has its antecedents in these
episodes, it must not be thought all obedience entails acts of aggression against others. Obedience
serves numerous productive functions. Indeed, the
very life of society is predicated on its existence.
Obedience may be ennobling and educative and refer to acts of charity and kindness as well as to destruction.
A procedure was devised which seems useful as a
tool for studying obedience (Milgram, 1961). It
consists of ordering a naive subject to administer
electric shock to a victim. A simulated shock gen-
S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371–378.
S TANLEY M ILGRAM
Behavioral Study of Obedience
erator is used, with 30 clearly marked voltage levels that range from 15 to 450 volts. The instrument
bears verbal designations that range from Slight
Shock to Danger: Severe Shock. The responses of
the victim, who is a trained confederate of the experimenter, are standardized. The orders to administer
shocks are given to the naive subject in the context
of a “learning experiment” ostensibly set up to study
the effects of punishment on memory. As the experiment proceeds the naive subject is commanded
to administer increasingly more intense shocks to
the victim, even to the point of reaching the level
marked Danger: Severe Shock. Internal resistances
become stronger, and at a certain point the subject
refuses to go on with the experiment. Behavior prior
to this rupture is considered “obedience,” in that the
subject complies with the commands of the experimenter. The point of rupture is the act of disobedience. A quantitative value is assigned to the subject’s performance based on the maximum intensity
shock he is willing to administer before he refuses
to participate further. Thus for any particular subject and for any particular experimental condition
the degree of obedience may be specified with a numerical value. The crux of the study is to systematically vary the factors believed to alter the degree of
obedience to the experimental commands.
The technique allows important variables to be
manipulated at several points in the experiment.
One may vary aspects of the source of command,
content and form of command, instrumentalities for
its execution, target object, general social setting,
etc. The problem, therefore, is not one of designing increasingly more numerous experimental conditions, but of selecting those that best illuminate
the process of obedience from the sociopsychological standpoint.
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The inquiry bears an important relation to philosophic analyses of obedience and authority (Arendt,
1958; Friedrich, 1958; Weber, 1947), an early experimental study of obedience by Frank (1944),
studies in “authoritarianism” (Adorno, FrenkelBrunswik, Levinson, & Sanford, 1950; Rokeach,
1961), and a recent series of analytic and empirical
studies in social power (Cartwright, 1959). It owes
much to the long concern with suggestion in social
psychology, both in its normal forms (e.g., Binet,
1900) and in its clinical manifestations (Charcot,
1881). But it derives, in the first instance, from direct observation of a social fact; the individual who
is commanded by a legitimate authority ordinarily
obeys. Obedience comes easily and often. It is a
ubiquitous and indispensable feature of social life.
The subjects were 40 males between the ages of
20 and 50, drawn from New Haven and the surrounding communities. Subjects were obtained by
a newspaper advertisement and direct mail solicitation. Those who responded to the appeal believed they were to participate in a study of memory and learning at Yale University. A wide range
of occupations is represented in the sample. Typical subjects were postal clerks, high school teachers, salesmen, engineers, and laborers. Subjects
ranged in educational level from one who had not
finished elementary school, to those who had doctorate and other professional degrees. They were
paid $4.50 for their participation in the experiment.
Distribution of Age and Occupational Types in the Experiment
S TANLEY M ILGRAM
Behavioral Study of Obedience
However, subjects were told that payment was simply for coming to the laboratory, and that the money
was theirs no matter what happened after they arrived. Table 1 shows the proportion of age and occupational types assigned to the experimental condition.
what effect punishment will have on learning in this
Therefore, I’m going to ask one of you to be the
teacher here tonight and the other one to be the
Does either of you have a preference?
Subjects then drew slips of paper from a hat
to determine who would be the teacher and who
would be the learner in the experiment. The drawing was rigged so that the naive subject was always
the teacher and the accomplice always the learner.
(Both slips contained the word “Teacher.”) Immediately after the drawing, the teacher and learner
were taken to an adjacent room and the learner was
strapped into an “electric chair” apparatus.
The experimenter explained that the straps were
to prevent excessive movement while the learner
was being shocked. The effect was to make it impossible for him to escape from the situation. An
electrode was attached to the learner’s wrist, and
electrode paste was applied “to avoid blisters and
burns.” Subjects were told that the electrode was attached to the shock generator in the adjoining room.
In order to improve credibility the experimenter
declared, in response to a question by the learner:
“Although the shocks can be extremely painful, they
cause no permanent tissue damage.”
Personnel and Locale
The experiment was conducted on the grounds of
Yale University in the elegant interaction laboratory. (This detail is relevant to the perceived legitimacy of the experiment. In further variations,
the experiment was dissociated from the university, with consequences for performance.) The role
of experimenter was played by a 31-year-old high
school teacher of biology. His manner was impassive, and his appearance somewhat stern throughout
the experiment. He was dressed in a gray technician’s coat. The victim was played by a 47-yearold accountant, trained for the role; he was of IrishAmerican stock, whom most observers found mildmannered and likable.
One naive subject and one victim (an accomplice)
performed in each experiment. A pretext had to
be devised that would justify the administration of
electric shock by the naive subject. This was effectively accomplished by the cover story. After a general introduction on the presumed relation between
punishment and learning, subjects were told:
Learning Task The lesson administered by the subject was a paired-associate learning task. The subject read a series of word pairs to the learner, and
then read the first word of the pair along with four
terms. The learner was to indicate which of the four
terms had originally been paired with the first word.
He communicated his answer by pressing one of
four switches in front of him, which in turn lit up
one of four numbered quadrants in an answer-box
located atop the shock generator.
But actually, we know very little about the effect of
punishment on learning, because almost no truly scientific studies have been made of it in human beings.
For instance, we don’t know how much punishment
is best for learning — and we don’t know how much
difference it makes as to who is giving the punishment, whether an adult learns best from a younger
or an older person than himself — or many things of
So in this study we are bringing together a number of
adults of different occupations and ages. And we’re
asking some of them to be teachers and some of them
to be learners.
We want to find out just what effect different people
have on each other as teachers and learners, and also
S TANLEY M ILGRAM
Shock Generator The instrument panel consists of
30 lever switches set in a horizontal line. Each
switch is clearly labeled with a voltage designation
that ranges from 15 to 450 volts. There is a 15volt increment from one switch to the next going
from left to right. In addition, the following verbal designations are clearly indicated for groups of
four switches going from left to right: Slight Shock,
Behavioral Study of Obedience
tering shocks requires some practice before it can
be handled smoothly. Therefore, immediately preceding the regular run, the teacher is given a preliminary series of 10 words to read to the learner. There
are 3 neutral words in the practice series (i.e., words
that the learner answers correctly), so that shocks
are administered for 7 of the words, with the maximum shock at 105 volts (moderate shock). Almost
all subjects master the procedure by the time the
preliminary run is over.
Subjects are then presented with a second list,
and are told that the procedure is the same as for the
first list; the experimenter adds, however:
Moderate Shock, Strong Shock, Very Strong Shock,
Intense Shock, Extreme Intensity Shock, Danger:
Severe Shock. (Two switches after this last designation are simply marked XXX.)
Upon depressing a switch: a pilot light corresponding to each switch is illuminated in bright
red; an electric buzzing is heard; an electric blue
light, labeled “voltage energizer,” flashes; the dial
on the voltage meter swings to the right; various relay clicks are sounded.
The upper left-hand corner of the generator is
labeled Shock Generator, Type ZLB, Dyson Instrument Company, Waltham, Mass. Output 15 Volts –
Details of the instrument were carefully handled
to insure an appearance of authenticity. The panel
was engraved by precision industrial engravers, and
all components were of high quality. No subject
in the experiment suspected that the instrument was
merely a simulated shock generator.2
Sample Shock Each naive subject is given a sample
shock on the shock generator, prior to beginning his
run as teacher. This shock is always 45 volts, and
is applied by pressing the third switch of the generator. The shock is applied to the wrist of the naive
subject, and has its source in a 45-volt battery wired
into the generator. This further convinces the subject of the authenticity of the generator.
Shock Instructions The subject is told to administer a shock to the learner each time he gives a wrong
response. Moreover — and this is the key command — the subject is instructed to “move one level
higher on the shock generator each time the learner
flashes a wrong answer.” He is also instructed to
announce the voltage level before administering a
shock. This serves to continually remind subjects
of the increasing intensity of shocks administered
to the learner.
Preliminary and Regular Run Pretests revealed
that the procedure of reading words and adminis-
When you get to the bottom of the list, repeat it over
again, and continue giving shocks, until the learner
has learned all the pairs correctly.
The experimenter instructs the subject to:
start from 15 volts and increase the shock level one
step each time the learner gives a wrong answer.
Feedback from the Victim In all conditions the
learner gives a predetermined set of responses to
the word pair test, based on a schedule of approximately three wrong answers to one correct answer.
In the present experimental condition no vocal response or other sign of protest is heard from the
learner until Shock Level 300 is reached. When the
300-volt shock is administered, the learner pounds
on the wall of the room in which he is bound to the
electric chair. The pounding can be heard by the
subject. From this point on, the learner’s answers
no longer appear on the four-way panel.
At this juncture, subjects ordinarily turn to the
experimenter for guidance. The experimenter instructs the subject to treat the absence of a response
as a wrong answer, and to shock the subject according to the usual schedule. He advises the subjects to
allow 5–10 seconds before considering no response
as a wrong answer, and to increase the shock level
one step each time the learner fails to respond correctly. The learner’s pounding is repeated after the
A related technique, making use of a shock generator, was reported by Buss (1961) for the study of aggression in the laboratory. Despite the considerable similarity of technical detail in the experimental procedures, both investigators proceeded in
ignorance of the other’s work. Milgram provided plans and photographs of his shock generator, experimental procedure, and first
results in a report to the National Science Foundation in January 1961. This report received only limited circulation. Buss reported
his procedure 6 months later, but to a wider audience. Subsequently, technical information and reports were exchanged. The present
article was first received in the Editor’s office on December 27, 1961; it was resubmitted with deletions on July 27, 1962.
S TANLEY M ILGRAM
Behavioral Study of Obedience
315-volt shock is administered; afterwards he is not
heard from, nor do his answers reappear on the fourway signal box.
fuses to go any further. In principle this may vary
from 0 (for a subject who refuses to administer even
the first shock) to 30 (for a subject who administers the highest shock on the generator). A subject
who breaks off the experiment at any point prior
to administering the thirtieth shock level is termed
a defiant subject. One who complies with experimental commands fully, and proceeds to administer
all shock levels commanded, is termed an obedient
Experimenter Feedback At various points in the
experiment the subject may turn to the experimenter
for advice on whether he should continue to administer shocks. Or he may indicate that he does not
wish to go on. It was important to standardize the
experimenter?s responses to these inquiries and reactions.
If the subject indicated his unwillingness to go
on, the experimenter responded with a sequence of
“prods,” using as many as necessary to bring the
subject into line.
Further Records With few exceptions, experimental sessions were recorded on magnetic tape. Occasional photographs were taken through one-way
mirrors. Notes were kept on any unusual behavior occurring during the course of the experiments.
On occasion, additional observers were directed to
write objective descriptions of the subjects’ behavior. The latency and duration of shocks were measured by accurate timing devices.
Prod 1: Please continue. or Please go on.
Prod 2: The experiment requires that you continue.
Prod 3: It is absolutely essential that you continue.
Prod 4: You have no other choice, you must go
Interview and Dehoax Following the experiment,
subjects were interviewed; open-ended questions,
projective measures, and attitude scales were employed. After the interview, procedures were undertaken to assure that the subject would leave the
laboratory in a state of well being. A friendly reconciliation was arranged between the subject and the
victim, and an effort was made to reduce any tensions that arose as a result of the experiment.
The prods were always made in sequence: Only
if Pro …
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