Working draft:

An unexpected outcome? Why?


At Milgram's laboratory at Yale University, residents of New Haven (CT) were placed in the position of administering what they understood to be electric shocks to another person. The recipient was a stranger who had done nothing to warrant punishment. In truth the recipient was merely a stooge who only acted as if he was receiving shock, though this was unknown to the subjects.

Some 65% of the subjects gave progressively stronger shocks to the stranger at the urging of the "scientist/experimenter." Milgram found an identical rate of obedience in both men and women (65%), but obedient women consistently reported more stress than men. Subjects were informed at the end that the stranger had been safe all along (though some wonder if they didn't often figure that out as they went along, and continued the game with the experimenter as a courtesy).

Many such studies were conducted subsequently, and analyzing the block from 1961 to 1985 there is no evidence that the obedience to authority effect declines over time (cf. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 1999, 25, 955-978).

Milgram made a documentary film, "Obedience," at Yale in May, 1962, to provide visual evidence of this phenomenon. In 1976, CBS aired a prime-time drama, "The tenth level," starring William Shatner as a Milgram-like character. Milgram was an advisor for the program, and the APA gave the program's writer a media award in 1977.

Milgram died in at the age of 51, December 20, 1984. The shock device itself is now stored at the Archives of the History of American Psychology at the University of Akron, Ohio.

In 1962, APA briefly held up Milgram's membership application for an investigation, but then granted membership.

Public criticism of this research started with an editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in the fall of 1963, and continues to this day.


I think I finally understand the fascination of ethicists with the Milgram study: it shows how people will "turn the screws on" others, which is precisely what IRB reviewers and admins seem to delight in doing. So, if you don't like Milgram, then maybe it's time for IRB reform!

Because no shock was used, no one was actually "harmed" physically, but that would have been someone other than the subject anyhow. (Would it matter if the stooge HAD been shocked, would that have been an added research ethics issue, are researchers allowed to "hurt" themselves?) Apparently the issues here are (1) deception, and (2) psychological distress, from learning that one would do something so harsh.

In reality, the Nuremberg alibi that "I was just following orders" had established the facts of Milgram's obedience research much earlier. Therefore, learning that a nice person such as oneself would do such can be distressful only because of the tendency to distance ourselves from the Nazi atrocities by demonizing them -- "Nice people don't do that," but now we find that defense isn't true. A laboratory project confirms the real-world case (Nuremberg), but with a little more truth than we want?

I think it is the outcome of these studies that troubles people. That is, reading the methodology in a vacuum not knowing the outcome, it really presents no threat of harm because conventional wisdom would have been that "good citizens" just wouldn't do it. Once again, so much for judging the value of research, and its potential for harm, from the perspective of conventional wisdom. The outcome may be distasteful, but it is not without value, quite unexpected value.

I have never been able to find follow-up data on these subjects, to see how effective the debriefing was, perhaps a day later or a week later. Of course, the emotion-laden adjectives and headlines invariably fly, e.g., "The Milgram Experiment: A Lesson in Depravity." But did this really produce as much unease in the subjects (beyond everyday risk) as it seems to produce in the latter-day ethicists who don't like the outcome? There is a BIG difference in evaluating the study if the message is just offensive to some. My guess is that because the experiment was replicated a number of times the distress was handled with "two aspirin and a good nights sleep," otherwise replications wouldn't have been allowed?