Obedience Key Studies

Every psychology student has heard about Stanley Milgram's electric shock experiments.

Aim: Stanley Milgram was from a Jewish background he was interested in how easily ordinary people could be influenced into committing atrocities for example, Germans in WWII.

Volunteers: He decided to test ordinary Americans (over 1000 of them) from all types of backgrounds. They were told that the research was into the effects of punishment on learning.

Procedure: Volunteers were told to administer electric shocks of increasing voltage, up to 450V, to a 'learner' (actor) each time the learner made an error.

An 'experimenter' was overseeing the operation and dressed in a white lab coat. When the 'learner' started to make errors and the 'teacher' began to worry, the 'experimenter' reminded them of the need to continue.

Predictions: Milgram asked 40 psychiatrists to predict the results, they said that less than 1% would go all the way and that those who did would be psychopathic sadists.

Results: The psychiatrists were very wrong. Obedience rates were way higher. Two thirds of volunteers went up to 450V. No one stopped before 275V! These results surprised everyone, including Milgram. No one expected to find so many people prepared to give 450V shocks to a stranger!

What's important is that you remember what the results were and possible reasons for them, plus some of the arguments in the controversy that this research provoked.

Milgram did more than one experiment - he carried out 18 variations of his study. All he did was alter the situation, not the type of volunteers.

The following table shows the different situations Milgram used in his experiments, and which situations lead to the highest obedience rates. 1 is the highest and 7 is the lowest.

Situational Variation of Shock Experiment Obedience Rate (% to 450v)
Another 'teacher' (actor) administers shocks on participant's instructions
1
Remote victim - victim in another room (original experiment)
2
Institutional context (experiment in downtown location)
3
Proximity ('teacher' and 'learner' in same room)
4
Touch proximity ('teacher' forces learner's hand onto shock plate)
5
Remote authority ('experimenter' out of room)
6
Two other 'teachers' (actors) rebel before 225V (participant gives shocks)
7

Conclusions: Milgram's work shows us how difficult it is to resist pressures from 'authority'. The real 'heroes' of the experiment were those who had the courage to disobey!

Milgram was fiercely criticised.

His results upset people - this may have been because they felt uncomfortable with what it showed about ordinary Americans. Maybe if they had not been so shocking (excuse the pun!) people would not have given Milgram's work a second thought, perhaps the unpalatable findings made people seek to discredit the procedures.

Milgram's work on obedience was attacked on ethical grounds, saying he deceived people and caused unreasonable distress. Volunteers often showed extreme stress - sweating, trembling, stammering, even having uncontrollable fits.

The APA decided that Milgram's work was ethically acceptable.

On practical grounds, people argued that demand characteristics created the high rates of obedience. It was a highly artificial setting and in a prestigious location, but even when Milgram moved the experiment to a downtown location, obedience rates were still alarmingly high.

However, Zimbardo defended Milgram and has said his work is "the most generalizable in all of social science... dozens of systematic replications with a 1000 subjects from as diverse backgrounds as possible."

Aim: To create a more realistic study of obedience than Milgram's by carrying out field studies on nurses who were unaware that they were involved in an experiment.

Procedure: Nurses in a hospital were given orders from a 'doctor' over the telephone to administer a dose of medication above the maximum allowed. The nurses were watched to see what they would do. The medication was not real, though the nurses thought it was.

Results: 21 out of 22 nurses were easily influenced into carrying out the orders. They were not supposed to take instructions by phone, let alone exceed the allowed dose.

When other nurses were asked to discuss what they would do in a similar situation, 21 out of 22 said they would not comply with the order.

Conclusions: Hofling demonstrated that people are very unwilling to question supposed 'authority', even when they might have good reason to.

Evaluation: Like Milgram, Hofling was criticised on ethical grounds. This was because the nurses were not aware that they were in a psychological study and could have felt threatened by the results and their implications.

On practical grounds, as a field study, this research was hard to replicate. Other studies which have tried to have not obtained similar results. This means that this study only applies to this hospital. The results cannot be applied generally, therefore it is not an ecologically valid study.

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