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Milgram’s Experiment: An Analysis of Obedience


Milgram’s obedience experiment is one of the most widely known studies in the field of social psychology. Conducted in the early 1960s by Stanley Milgram, a psychologist, this experiment aimed to investigate people’s willingness to obey authority figures, even when their actions went against their own moral beliefs. The experiment involved participants playing the role of “teachers” who were instructed to administer electric shocks to “learners” for incorrect answers to test questions. This analysis will provide a summary of the experiment, discuss its ethical implications, and explore its lasting contributions to the field of psychology.

Overview of the Experiment

The Milgram experiment consisted of a setup where participants were told they were assisting in a study examining the effect of punishment on learning. They were introduced to an experimenter who portrayed a figure of authority, and were told that their role was to administer electric shocks to “learners” whenever they provided incorrect answers to a series of questions. Unbeknownst to the participants, the learners were actually actors who were not receiving real electric shocks.

The participants were instructed to administer increasingly stronger shocks as the experiment progressed, which they believed could cause severe pain or even harm to the learners. The experimenter, in a position of authority, would continuously prod the participants to continue administering the shocks, emphasizing the importance of the study and the need to adhere to the instructions given.

The results of the experiment were shocking, as it revealed that a significant portion of the participants were willing to continue administering electric shocks, despite the distress expressed by the learners and their own discomfort. Milgram found that approximately 65% of participants were willing to deliver the maximum shock level of 450 volts, purely based on the authority figure’s instruction.

Ethical Implications

Milgram’s experiment raises significant ethical concerns regarding the potential harm inflicted upon participants. While the learners were not actually receiving electric shocks, the participants were led to believe that they were causing real pain and suffering. This deception was deemed necessary to elicit genuine reactions from the participants and study the phenomenon of obedience to authority.

However, this raises questions about the adequacy of informed consent and the potential psychological harm experienced by the participants. Many participants displayed signs of distress and moral conflict during the experiment, highlighting the potential harm caused by subjecting individuals to such intense psychological pressure. Critics argue that this level of distress may have long-lasting effects on the participants’ mental well-being, despite debriefing processes that were conducted afterwards.

Additionally, some argue that Milgram’s experiment violated the principle of beneficence by exposing participants to unnecessary psychological harm without providing a clear benefit to society. The experiment’s purpose was to investigate obedience, but it can be argued that the knowledge gained does not justify the potential harm inflicted on the participants.

Contributions to Psychology

Despite the ethical concerns raised by Milgram’s experiment, it made significant contributions to our understanding of human behavior and obedience to authority. The study demonstrated the power of situational factors, such as a figure of authority, in influencing individuals to act against their own moral judgments. This sheds light on the potential for ordinary individuals to engage in harmful actions under certain conditions.

Milgram’s experiment also sparked further research and discussions on the topic of obedience and ethical standards in psychological research. It led to the development of strict ethical guidelines and regulations in human research, emphasizing the importance of protecting participants’ well-being and obtaining informed consent.

Furthermore, the experiment contributed to the understanding of the role of social psychology in explaining real-world phenomena, such as obedience to authority figures, and the potential implications for issues such as conformity, compliance, and ethical decision-making.


Milgram’s obedience experiment remains a significant landmark in the field of psychology, despite its ethical controversies. It demonstrated the power of authority and the potential for individuals to engage in harmful actions under certain circumstances. By raising awareness of factors that influence obedience, this experiment has helped shape ethical standards in psychological research and provided valuable insights into human behavior. While the experiment may be considered a distressing experience for the participants, its contributions have paved the way for further research on obedience and influenced ethical guidelines in psychological experiments.