Criticisms: Diana Baumrind

Diana Baumrind (Photo Credit: The Baumrind Fallacy)

Diana Baumrind’s responses to the experiments

Milgram observed that participants of the experiment were visibly hesitant, upset, angry and frightened. Diana Baumrind wrote a paper outlining her reaction to Milgram’s experiment in 1964. Baumrind argued intensively that Milgram’s ambition as a scientist and the need to take care of his participants were at a great tension. Baumrind was also concerned “that the design of Milgram’s experiment reflected his desire to see how social influence would work in an experimental context in which the participants would feel that something was at stake (Lunt, 2009, p. 43).

Another concern Baumrind opened was that of a breach of trust. Baumrind suggests,

That there are a special set of ethical concerns in play because the natural attitude of participants as volunteers is that they are there to help the experimenter to contribute to scientific knowledge; they approach the experiment in a passive and respectful way, which makes them particularly susceptible to Milgram’s manipulations (Lunt, 2009, p. 43-44).

Baumrind believed that the subjects of Milgram’s experiments were likely left with permanent negative after-effects.

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.

Why Obedience?

The experiment’s relevance to genocide

In October 1963, the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology published a 9-page article written by Milgram, titled “Behavioral Study of Obedience,” which highlighted his obedience experiments. “By his fourth sentence he was already referencing Nazi death camps and their ‘daily quotas of corpses,’ implying that the Holocaust was something his 9-page paper would help the world understand” (Baker, 2013). Milgram was especially attracted to obedience research studies due to the impact of the atrocities of World War II. He drew parallels between the behavior of the subjects he saw in the lab to the willingness of ordinary Germans to slaughter the Jewish people and other minorities during the Holocaust. It was not that Milgram thought there was something wrong with the Germans, but instead there was something wrong with humanity and he wanted to try and find the answer to this problem.

German Nazis during WWII (Photo Credit: Becket Adams)


A participant of Milgram’s experiment (Photo Credit: Saul McLeod)

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.