Justifications for Milgram: Roger Brown

Milgram’s biggest advocate?

In response to the negative reactions of Milgram’s experiments, Roger Brown has many positive reactions. Brown is one of Milgram’s most ardent advocates within social psychology. Brown goes as far as to regard the obedience experiments as “amongst the greatest ever conducted in social psychology” (Lunt, 2009, p. 54). In Brown’s book, Social Psychology: the second edition, he discusses two issues: the potential for collective action in response to authority and an interpretation of Milgram’s findings using social impact theory. In Brown’s book, he discusses the Gamson study, using that as his interpretation to Milgram’s experiments. With Brown’s interpretation that

The presence of others strengthened the resolve of individuals to disobey authority. A critical difference between the Milgram experiments and the Gamson study is the presence of the authority figure (Lunt, 2009, p. 56).

Brown proposes that these two studies (the Gamson study and Milgram’s experiments) give us an insight into human behaviors under different social conditions, which is extremely different from Milgram’s conception of scientific social psychology. “Social psychology is the study of the interaction between individuals in groups or between individuals and social institutions and therefore falls between the epistemological assumptions of psychology and sociology” (Lunt, 2009, p. 57). Brown does not see social psychology as such a distinct scientific discipline, like Milgram, but rather explicitly draws on social and political theory when framing his research questions.

Milgram’s Response: Participants

Milgram says participants did not know about hoax

In regards to the criticisms of whether or not participants knew about the study being a hoax Milgram responded stating a research team interviewed all participants and they found that fewer than 20 percent challenged the reality of the situation (the experiment) (Forsyth, 2010, p. 248). In response to many individuals questioning whether or not participants knew that the shocks were not real, Milgram said,

Many subjects showed signs of nervousness in the experimental situation, and especially upon administering the more powerful shocks. In a large number of cases the degree of tension reached extremes that are rarely seen in socio-psychological laboratory studies. Subjects were observed to sweat, tremble, stutter, bite their lips, groan, and dig their fingernails into their flesh (Milgram, 1974, p. 375).

In Thomas Blass, Ph.D.’s book The Man Who Shocked the World, a book about Milgram’s obedience experiments, Blass says “The distress of the participants was so great that the publication of the study sparked a controversy over the ethics of socio-psychological research” (Blass, 2004).


Setup for experiment (Photo Credit: Saul McLeod)

Criticisms: Participants

Two participants of the experiments speak out about experience

William Menold participated in Milgram’s study in 1961 after he had just been discharged from a Regimental Combat Team in the U.S. Army. Menold said, “It was hell in there,” describing Milgram’s experiment. “A fleeing thought occasionally crossed his mind about whether the ‘thing was real or no… but it was so well done… I bought the whole thing.’” Menold said when asked if he thought the experiment was real. “He ended up fully obedient: ‘I went the whole nine yards.’ During the experiment, he recalls ‘hysterically laughing, but it was not funning laughter… it was so bizarre. And I mean, I completely lost it, my reasoning power.’ He described himself as an ‘emotional wreck’ and a ‘basket case’ (Blass, 2004, p. 115-116).

Herbert Winer, another former subject spoke to a group at Yale about his experience in the experiment. He stated, “To my dismay, [the learner] began to stumble very early in the game… it was quite clear that before we got very far, the level of shock was going to be increasing… this was the end of the fun part. It is very difficult to describe… the way my feelings changed, and the conflict and tension arose.” Winer discussed when the learner began to complain about “his heart condition” and how the experimenter prodded him to continue. Winer said, “And so I did, for a couple of times, and finally my own heart condition went into an extremely tense and conflicted state… I turned to the chap in the gray coat and said, ‘I’m sorry but I can’t go on any further with this…’” (Blass, 2004, p. 116).

Criticisms: Gina Perry

Gina Perry’s responses to Milgram’s experiment

Gina Perry, an Australian psychologist, once regarded Milgram as a “misunderstood genius who’d been penalized in some ways for revealing something troubling and profound about human nature.” But by the end of her research on Milgram’s experiments she said, “By the end of my research I actually had quite a very different view of the man and the research” (NPR, 2013).

Perry interviewed a few study participants decades after the exam, one un-named participant was quoted telling her “The thought of quitting never… occurred to me” (NPR, 2013).

Two things Perry addresses are what she called the “powerful parable” and the concern that 65 percent is the only significant measurement addressed. “Perry believes that despite all its ethical issues and the problem of never truly being able to replicate Milgram’s procedures, the study has taken on the role of what she calls a ‘powerful parable’” (Cherry, 2008). Meaning, that Milgram’s work inspired other researchers to explore what makes people follow orders and what leads them to question authority. While the parable is not necessarily a criticism, she does criticize the statistics that are greatly publicized. Milgram had a total of 18 experiments, each having a different rating for obedience and disobedience. However, 65 percent obedience is always mentioned when discussing Milgram’s experiments. What Perry criticizes about this is that this 65 percent only applies to the first, baseline, study, not the other 17 studies.

Gina Perry (Photo Credit: ABC)

Criticisms: Ethics

Were Milgram’s experiments unethical?

One of the most important controversies in regards to his research had to deal “with the ethics of immersing participants in a highly stressful situation without their prior consent and deceiving them into believing that they had hurt, and possibly harmed, an innocent human being” (Blass, 1998, p. 50-51). Half a century later, the rage over the controversy of ethics and meaning of Milgram’s experiments continues. For example, there was a 3-day academic bun fight at Nipissing University in Canada called the 2013 Obedience to Authority Conference to discuss issues that still arise in regards to the experiments (Chin, 2013).

Participation in the Stanley Milgram Experiments (Photo Credit: Derek Gregory)

An ethical issue that received attention was the deception Milgram lead on. Subjects thought they were participating in an experiment on learning and memory, where Milgram was studying the effects of punishment on learning. Not until the (what Milgram called) debriefings did participants know they had not actually hurt anyone. However, many critics believe debriefing was not enough because it did not prevent any subsequent psychological damage that could have affected participants. The realization that they could administer such lethal levels of shock to another human being could have long-term negative psychological effects on the subjects (Controversy in Ethics of Obedience Research). Milgram’s experiment really ignited a debate particularly in social sciences about what was acceptable to put human subjects through (NPR, 2013).



Criticisms: Participants Knowledge

Did the participants know it was all a hoax?

“They were all shocked in the findings. They suggested that the participants knew that no shocks were being administered, but they played along so as not to ruin the study” (Forsyth, 2010, p. 248). Many social psychologists felt that trust was a large factor in regards to this experiment. However, many of these social psychologists felt that trust was a factor that made the participants know the shocks were not real.

What did they expect to find?

What Milgram and other thought they would discover versus what they truly discovered

Milgram was certain that very few participants would actually carry out the orders of the experiment (to 450-volts). “So he was surprised when 26 of the 40 (65 percent) individuals who served as teachers in the initial experiment administered the full 450-volts to the presumably helpless learner” (Forsyth, 2010, p. 244). Only a few predicted that anyone would give a shock greater than 180-volts. A panel of psychiatrists, college students, and middle-class adults were asked by Milgram to make predictions about the results of the experiment. “Most people, including both experts and laypersons alike, were surprised by the level of obedience Milgram discovered in his research” (Forsyth, 2010, p. 247).

Experiment Results (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

An Experiment with Shocking Results

The Obedience Experiment

The Shock Generator (Photo Credit: Jeffry Ricker, Ph.D.)

The baseline study (I will define baseline study as his first initial experiment) done for his experiment, which was then followed by seventeen variations to the experiment, showed that 65 percent of participants would adhere to authority. Milgram had 40 men come to Yale and they were “assigned” either a “learner” or “teacher” role, not knowing that the learner role was truly a confederate. In the baseline study, the teacher was in a room with a man in a lab coat and would perform a memory test with the learner. For each wrong answer the learner was to give, the teacher would administer a shock. “The generator had 30 different switches running in 15-volt increments from 15 to 450-volts. The higher levels of shock were labeled in big letters as ‘Intense Shock’, ‘Extremely Intensity Shock’, ‘Danger: Severe Shock’, and, ominously ‘XXX’” (Jones, 2006, p. 397). Once the shock hit 300-volts, the learner would pound, vigorously, on the laboratory walls, this was repeated at 315-volts, but not heard from again after that level.

Milgram’s 17 variation experiments duplicated the baseline experiment with slight variations. Experiment 2 was a voice-feedback, where the teacher could hear the learner’s complaints from an adjacent room. Experiment 3 focused on proximity, placing the learner in the same room as the teacher, only a few feet away from one another. Experiment 4 was a touch-proximity, where the teacher and learner were in the same room and the teacher had to physically make the learner touch the shock plate.

The 3 variations of the experiment altered how many participants carried out the acts of obedience. “35 percent of the subjects defied the experimenter in the Remote condition, 37.5 percent in Voice-feedback, 60 percent in Proximity, and 70 percent in Touch-Proximity” (Milgram, 1974, p. 53). Other variations of the experiments changed whether or not the man in the lab coat (who was a high school biology teacher) was present in the room and the location of the physical experiment (moved it off of Yale’s campus).


The Man Who Astonished the World: Responses to Stanley Milgram’s Experiments

The Man Who Shocked the World: Stanley Milgram (Photo Credit: Peter C. Baker)

Stanley Milgram’s Obedience Experiment

Stanley Milgram is well known today for his controversial experiment on obedience. During the 1960s, while he was a professor at Yale, Milgram conducted a series of experiments on obedience. His findings were shocking: most people, Milgram found, will obey authority figures when instructed to harm others, even if such actions were contrary to their own, personal beliefs. Milgram’s experiment had enormous implications for understanding how so many people could come to take part in the mass murder of Jews and other ethnic minorities in Nazi Germany. However, Milgram’s experiments were questionable from an ethical perspective and they were criticized heavily at the time and since then by social psychologists and other scholars. This paper will discuss Milgram’s experiments and the criticisms that it drew. Because Milgram’s experiments have been central to the study of genocide, it is important to understand the objections that people have raise to them as well as the way that they have been and continue to be justified.