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).