The Method Section: The Milgram Experiment – Timestamps

00:00 – Intro

03:08 – The experiment

06:54 – The results

11:21 – Alternate hypotheses’

13:02 – How this relates to the Holocaust

14:16 – Problems with the experiment design

15:30 – Ethical problems

18:07 – Takeaways and conclusion

18:56 – Outro


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This week on The Method Section, Tom is taking a look at obedience and the Milgram experiment. There have been many times throughout history where people have committed atrocious acts but their defence, as was the case with Eichmann and the holocaust, was they were following orders. At what point do orders overtake morality and ethics of an individual? And even in an experiment testing this were scientific moral protocols broken? Find out in The Method Section! Music by: Joakim Karud –






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Tom:                      Hello Ladies and gentlemen and welcome. I am your host, Tom Jenks and today we are looking at the Milgram experiments. We are going to be exploring whether some of the world’s most atrocious acts are factors of obedience and where this idea comes from. Stay tuned to The Method Section.

Tom:                      Yes, that’s right. Welcome to The Method Section, a short form podcast aimed at scientists, old and new. Today we are looking at obedience specifically the Milgrim experiments, which I’m sure many of you have heard of before. But if not, these were experiments conducted at Yale by Stanley Milgram in July of 1961 and it was to test if normal people would commit atrocious acts simply because they are following orders or being told to do so. Now, this came about because in 1960 Adolf Eichmann was put on trial for creating the systematic method that was used in the Holocaust to kill the millions of Jewish people. Now Eichmann and his defense claimed that he was just following orders. So Milgram was, I don’t want to say inspired, but given the idea since his parents were Jewish refugees in World War Two, whether Eichmann and his fellow soldiers in the camps could be regarded as accomplices or not, or whether indeed following orders is an acceptable excuse or defense in a court of law. Regardless of this experiment however, Eichmann was hung in June of 1962 in Israel. So then if this was true, it meant that evil was something that a lot of people could conduct under the description of just being told to do it. So Milgram was thinking, does it occur when people just stop thinking? Does it mean that people lose their ethicality and morality when they are being ordered to do something? And this is exactly what he intended to find out. People may have heard of this experiment due to the way that is used in the world nowadays is used a lot and it is our baseline study and understanding of how some people can be persuaded or some people conduct really evil activities. But this experiment also had some ethical and moral issues within it itself. But this is something that we will come on to more towards the end of the episode.

Tom:                      So then the experiment, what happened was a newspaper advertisement was published and people responded to it to participate in an experiment which involved three people. The experimenter obviously was the scientist. You had an actor who came in and you had the subject of the experiment. So the subject was told they were going to help in an experiment that studied punishment based learning. They were assigned the role of a teacher in this experiment and the actor who was in on the experiment was assigned the role of the learner. More specifically, they were testing the effect of electric shocks on the learner’s ability to memorize word pairs. So the subject would help the learner learn the list of word pairs. And once they had gone through at once, they would read out a word and then give them multiple choices to choose from for the correct corresponding word if they got it correct. If the learner got it correct, who is the actor remember, then they would move on to the next one. And if the actor got it wrong, then they would be shocked. But the subject, the teacher who was reading this out has to administer these shocks. So these shocks started at 15 volts went all the way up to 450 volts in 15 volt increments, which means the learner was receiving 30 different shocks. Now of course they weren’t. We know this and the experimenter knew this, but of course the subject the teacher did not. For those of you who aren’t so well versed on volts, I’m certainly not 75 to 120 volts is considered moderate. 240 volts is what we actually get in as a domestic supply to most houses. And then obviously anything kind of, above 430 is severe to death. So the real test was to see how far the subject, the teacher would be willing to go in administering shocks to the learner when told to do so by the experimenter. The subject though, the teacher was told that these shocks would be painful but not dangerous to the learner. So the subject goes through the words and every time the actor gets one wrong, they hit one of the buttons and produce an electric shock and the actor fakes being hit. At 300 volts the teacher hears the, the learner screaming and pounding on the walls and refusing to answer any more questions. At 315 volts this repeated and later on this kind of just carried on until no responses were heard. They heard screams all the way up to no response being made and they were told by the experimenter that no response from the learner equals a wrong answer so that they should shock and move on to the next one. Once again, no one was actually being shocked, but the subject thought they were shocking someone. Now to encourage the shocking, the experimenter used for comments ranging from kind request, please continue a more scientific one, the experiment requires this to continue and there’s an order of like, Eh, you must do this. Before the experiment was conducted, they asked 40 psychiatrists to predict out of 100 subjects, how many people would go all the way to the end and administer 450 volt shocks to another person? On average, they predicted that 0.1% of people would administer the highest shock level.

Tom:                      So then let’s take a look at the results of the experiment and we’ll see that 65% of the subjects administered the full voltage of the shocks. We’ll also see that 100% of the subjects administered up to 300 volts, not a single one didn’t stop before that. Of course, over the years, many replications have been conducted and through many modifications of the experiment, they’ve managed to achieve various percentages of obedience anywhere from 20 all the way to 100% to kind of understand these results and how Milgram kind of explained this, we have to understand what he thought obedience was. He developed this theory of the agentic state. He thought that obedience was a human adaptation that allowed us to be efficient in larger groups. If we formed like hierarchical societies or little groups and we gave up our own desires to allow us to be given direction by someone in a higher social status than us and allow ourselves to become what he called an agent, then things run far more smoothly and efficiently. And this can be seen in many examples in today’s life. Imagine in America we don’t have crossroads here we have roundabouts and stuff, but in America four people come to a crossroad at the same time, you know, left to their own devices without any traffic lights or stop signs or whatever. A crash is quite likely to happen. But if you had a traffic warden in the middle guiding everyone, you would hand your decision making over to that authority figure in the hierarchy. You would put a place yourself as an agent, as a subordinate in that hierarchy and give the power to the traffic warden because everything flows a lot better. And it’s true. It does. The problem with this then is when you enter a hierarchy and assign yourself the role of an agent, you also no longer feel responsible for your actions, whether good or bad, but you pass that onto the person above you in this hierarchy.

Tom:                      So then why do we make ourselves agents in these situations? In any given situation, why would you choose to become an agent? Well, he says, and as been done a lot of psychological studies on this and a lot of other people are finding the same stuff as well. That when a subject and is a new area. They know that they will not be the leader of that hierarchy. So especially in this experiment, they come in, they know they are not the most knowledgeable one. So they assign the highest role of this hierarchy to the experimenter becoming and placing the role upon themselves to be an agent. They are staying within the hierarchy because you know maybe as someone who has volunteered for a science experiment, there is someone who likely wants to help further progress and they are kind of following that ideology. The reason why they also trust this person is because the experimenter within the realms of this experiment only makes demands related to the experiment.

Tom:                      So what keeps us in agent or what would keep you an agent if you were in this scenario in the test scenario? There are three reasons given to this. Firstly, consistency. If you were to admit you are wrong at say 300 volts, you are 20 odd incremental actions through this experiment. At that point you would have to admit that you are wrong about what you were doing, administering shocks to someone else, but if you are to admit that you are wrong, now you would have to admit that you were wrong at every step leading up to this moment. Naturally people do not like this. Secondly, there is obligation. You made the commitment to something that you believe in. And likely, as I said, you are someone, if you volunteer to participate in this kind of experiment, you are someone who believes in science and helping that progress and you’ve made a commitment to that. Thus you want to keep it. Thirdly is the situational definition. When we are in social situations, we subconsciously define it. We assign people roles and an order within that kind of societal situation. And if we start to disrupt that, we start to feel awkward and bad and incredibly anxious. We know that the experimenter is legitimate, knowledgeable and competent because we have assigned them the highest role in this hierarchy and we don’t want to disrupt that.

Tom:                      So that’s what Milgram thought the results fizz experiment showed and what he thought on obedience. But obviously as with every kind of finding, there are some alternate hypothesis’. And I would like to mention two today, firstly is the trusted expert hypothesis. This is where people in an authoritarian state that you have placed their either by coming into the hierarchy or are their naturally anyway you you trust. More. So for example, in this scenario, you trusted the experiment and knew more about the experiment than you and / or that you would trust them to act responsibly. It was made clear to the subject that the shocks may cause pain in the moment but were not dangerous. So if you have placed them above you in this hierarchical structure, why would you have reason to doubt that? The second hypothesis is one that I’ve touched on slightly and that is ideology. The subjects had the ideology that they were helping science. It keeps them bound by this kind of commitment. And I said there were four sentences used to persuade subjects to continue the experiment and shocking people. And it turns out the one where they ordered people to do it in a commanding manner was the least effective. But the most effective sentence that they use to persuade people to continue administering shocks was about how essential it was to the experiment that the experiment needed this or required this for them to continue. As I said earlier, there are some problems with this experiment. It was conducted in the 60s and it wasn’t until the 70s the established ethical and moral parameters were set up about how all experiments and human research should be conducted.

Tom:                      So we’ll go through some of the problems of this experiment. Now. Firstly, the results, I think obviously it’s important to talk about the validity of the results. So tests in a lab do not equate to the situations in the Holocaust. So we have to be very careful about taking these test results and applying it to that situation or any horrific situation. It does provide something to think about. However, not everyone agrees on that and it’s been over 50 years now. So, uh, it’s still a point of contention. The current theory on how this does relate to the Holocaust, however, is as follows. Rather than it being the banality of evil, which is how committing atrocious acts without thinking or following orders was termed in Eichmann’s trial, the process responsible is termed engaged followership. Now this works very similar to both the alternate theories I mentioned earlier. These people were heavily invested in the ideology of Nazis and wanting to climb their way up the ladder and do their part and show that they were making a difference. Secondly, they wanted to act upon what they thought Hitler would want or do in that scenario in their shoes, so it really is a mix. They, they had this trusted expert. They were, they had this ideal and putting them together. You get engaged followership.

Tom:                      Looking at the experiment, then we can see that firstly, the experimentation sample was biased for two reasons. One, only males participated. Is it the same for females? We now know, yes, yes it is. However, in the original experiment, we couldn’t task for that. Secondly, it was said to not be an accurate representation of the American peoples because it was advertised in a newspaper, so you were really limiting the amount of people that you are testing because firstly, only the people who pick up a newspaper are going to see it. Secondly, only the people who want to come to your lab and really help further the science and go out of their way to do it are also going to volunteer. So you create a bias in your sample by advertising to do it in certain ways. Unfortunately, sometimes this just cannot be avoided and it is still a problem today. Smith and Bond in 1998 wrote a paper and pointed out that all but one of the replications by that time had been conducted in western countries where you know we are conditioned to follow authority figures in that sense could only conducting this type of experiment and the replications of it in Westernized countries be biased in itself. It’ll be interesting to see it conducted in another culture.

Tom:                      Then at the beginning, as I said, we have the ethical and moral dilemmas of this experiment. It wasn’t until the ’70s or the Belmont report was written. This is what I mentioned earlier and described how human research could be conducted. So it doesn’t abide by many of the standards that we use today to conduct human research. And you’d have a hard time convincing, uh, board members to give you funding for an experiment like this to be honest nowadays. But why? So firstly, deception, the subjects believed they were shocking real people and had caused them serious harm. This in itself, believing that you had directly killed someone or call someone serious harm, whether following instructions or not has serious psychological effects. Obviously afterwards he did tell them the truth and one year later he did follow up. This leads straight onto the wellbeing of the subjects and obviously a lot of them were exposed to high levels of psychological stress that could honestly leave lasting damage. That was the fear at the time. And I mean, I watched some of the videos of the experiment. They released a small video on it and you could see the subject that they showed was visibly kind of distressed about what was going on. And I’ve watched some videos on more recent experiments, the Darren Brown show did it here in the UK during the heist in 2007 I think it was. So you can check out that clip on Youtube. I know that. Anyway, the original subjects experienced sweating, trembling, stuttering, nervous laughing and three of them even had uncontrollable seizures because of the psychological stress that they were going through. However, one year later, as I just said, Milgram did follow up on all of the participants, the subjects and he found that there was no lasting damage and 83% said they were happy to have participated and 1% saying they wished they were never involved. One point of contention for this experiment was the right to withdraw of the participants. Now, this was an established parameter of human research at the time and it basically says that subjects participants have the right to drop out of the experiment of any time, regardless of payment. So, normally what would happen and what does happen in experiments is that subjects participants are given as they turn up and they are told whether they leave or not, that that is theirs. They’re not going to take the money away. So this broke that parameter. However, Milgram argues that the very nature of the experiment was obedience and calls for that right to be verbally denied but not enforced.

Tom:                      But yeah, obviously there is a lot to take away from this. The fact that something like this would be kind of hard to reproduce again. I mean you can, it is not impossible that it will be. As I said, just 12 years ago, Derren Brown recreated it, so it’s not like it’s a something that’s too far away from being done again. However, obviously we don’t want to put people through psychological stresses and we’ve learned a lot from it. Some people obviously still argue about what this experiment showed us, but most people seem to come down on the line of this and even the alternate hypothesis don’t say that he was wrong in the main finding that people will follow orders to commit really bad acts no matter what they are, but they also, it’s just a method that they kind of disagree with. As I explained, the alternate hypotheses that people have arrived at.

Tom:                      However, I do try and keep this as a short form podcast. However, this was just a super interesting, once I started looking at it. I just couldn’t stop so I wrote down a bit too much. However, I’m going to stop rambling, but yeah, thank you guys for listening. I know it was quite a deep topic, but I think it’s, you know, very important to go back a lot of the time and not forget what or how our history has been shaped scientifically, socially and politically.

Tom:                      If you want to check out all the latest goings on, you’re going to have to you can find us on Facebook and Twitter by searching @conductscience. If you would like to get in touch, suggest a guest for Under the Microscope, suggest a topic for the main podcast or for this one The Method Section. Please do not hesitate to get in touch using the #ConductScience or if you just want to get in touch and have a chat, that is absolutely okay as well. Remember it for that, the conduct science podcast next week we are doing a variety question-based show, so if you have anything, any questions, please get in touch. #ConductScience is where we are going to be looking on Monday, we released the first Data Analysis: A Guide to Coding Bootcamps, hence for the missing episode last week on Friday. Yesterday on Thursday we released the Conduct Science Podcast addiction episode. That was really, really great episode. I’m so glad how that turned out. So guys, if you’re interested, please give it a listen. But that’s it from me this week, so I’ll see you guyysssss… A-next tiiiiimmme.