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What was the aim of Milgram’s obedience research? (1973)

Milgram (1963) was interested in researching how far people would go in obeying an instruction if it involved harming another person.

Stanley Milgram was interested in how easily ordinary people could be influenced into committing atrocities, for example, Germans in WWII


What is obedience?

A form of social influence in which an individual follows a direct order- the person issuing the order is usually a figure of authority who has the power to punish when obedient behaviour is not forthcoming


Explain the procedure of Milgram’s (1963) obedience research?

- recruited 48 male participants through newspaper adverts and flyers- the ad said he was looking for participants for a study regarding memory
- participants recruited were aged between 20 and 50 years and their jobs ranged from unskilled to professionals
- confederates played the experimenter,who dressed in lab coats, and a confederate’Mr Wallace’ played the learner each time. The participants were therefore the ‘teachers’ who were told they could leave the study at any time
- the learner was strapped in a chair in another room wired with electrodes- the ‘teacher’ was instructed to give the ‘learner’ and increasingly severe electric shock each time the learner made a mistake on a learning task (task involved learning word pairs)
- the shock level started at 15 (labelled ‘slight shock’ on the shock machine) and rose through 30 levels to 450 volts
- after the 315 volt shock the learner pounded on the wall but after that there was no further response from the learner


If the participant wished to stop, the ‘experimenter’ had four standard ‘prods’:

Prod 1= “please continue”
Prod 2= “the experiment requires that you go on”
Prod 3= “it is absolutely essential that you continue”
Prod 4= “you have no other choice, you must go on”


What were the findings from Milgram’s (1963) obedience research?

- no participant stopped below 300 volts, 12.5% (5 participants) stopped at 300 volts (‘intense shock’) and 65% continued to highest levels of 450 volts!!!
- qualitative data also obtained such as observations that the participants showed signs of extreme tension; many of them were seen to sweat, bite their lips and dig their fingernails into their hands with 3 participants having full blown seizures


Prior to the study, Milgram asked 14 psychology students to predict the naïve participants’ behaviour- what did they predict?

Students estimated that no more than 3% of participants would continue to 450 volts = shows findings were most certainly not expected!!


What happened after the study?

- all participants were debriefed and assured that their behaviour was entirely normal
- they were also sent a follow-up questionnaire in which 84% reported that they felt glad to have participated and 74% reported they had learned something of personal importance


What are the evaluation points for Milgram?

❌ lacks internal validity BUT Sheridan and king
✅ good external validity (Hofling et al)
✅ replications have supported Milgram’s research findings
❌ alternative explanation to Milgram’s conclusions
❌ associated ethical issues


Explain how Milgram’s research lacks internal validity

- the participants may have behaved the way they did because they didn’t really believe in the set-up- they guessed it wasn’t real electric shocks. In which case, Milgram wasn’t testing what he intended to I.e. study lacked internal validity
- however, Sheridan and King conducted a similar study where real shocks were given to a puppy
- despite the real shocks, over 50% of men and 100% of the women delivered what they thought was a fatal shock
- this suggests that the observed effects in Milgram’s study were genuine because people behaved the same way with real shocks


Explain how Milgram’s research had good external validity

- Milgram argued that the lab environment accurately reflected wider authority relationships in real life
- other research supports this argument- for example, Hofling et al studied nurses on a hospital ward and found that levels of obedience to unjustified demands by doctors were very high with 21/22 nurses obeying
- this suggests that the process of obedience to authority that occurred in Milgram’s lab environment can be generalised to other situations
- so his findings do have value regarding how obedience occurs in real life


Explain how replications have supported Milgram’s findings

- Le Jeu de la Mort (the game of death) is a French documentary about reality TV which included a replication of Milgram’s study
- participants who believed they were contestants in a pilot episode for a new game show were paid to give (fake) electric shocks, when ordered by the presenter, to other participants who were in fact actors in front of a studio audience
- in a remarkable confirmation of Milgram’s results, 80% of participants delivered the maximum shock of 460 volts to an apparently unconscious man
- their behaviour was almost identical to that of Milgram’s participants: sweating, lip biting and other signs of anxiety
- this replications supports Milgram’s conclusions about obedience to authority, and demonstrate that his findings were not just a one-off occurrence


Explain how there is an alternative explanation to Milgram’s conclusions

- according to social identity theory (SIT) the key to obedience lies in group identification
- in Milgram’s study, participants identified with the experimenter- they identified with the science of the study
- when obedience levels fell, the participants identified less with the science and more with the victim
- for example the first three ‘prods’ used don’t demand obedience, they appeal for help with the science e.g. “the experiment requires that you continue”
- only the 4th ‘prod’ demands obedience, “you have no other choice, you must go on”
- every time the 4th prod was used, the participant quit
- this is evidence for a limitation of Milgram’s conclusions as it suggests that participants did not continue to give the victim shocks through obedience as Milgram suggested, but due to their identification with the experimenter as a scientist


Explain how ethical issues is a limitation of Milgram’s research

- participants subject to significant deception which goes against the BPS code of ethics which every researcher has a duty to follow
- perhaps the most significant deception involved the participants believing the electric shocks were real
- even though the participants were debriefed after, the deception was a betrayal of trust that could be argued, has the potential to damage the reputation of psychologists and their research