Psychologists say Milgram's famous experiment on obedience to authority has been misunderstood

Psychologists say Milgram's famous experiment on obedience to authority has been misunderstood
Professor Kathryn Millard

Just over half a century ago, Stanley Milgram ran the most renowned studies in the history of psychology. He showed how ordinary people can do extraordinary harm to others when asked to do so. His conclusion, made famous through his film of the research, Obedience, was that humans are programmed to obey orders, no matter how noxious. But now, new research, complemented by a powerful new film, suggests that Milgram was wrong.

In his experiment, which took place at Yale University in 1961, Milgram asked volunteers to give what they thought were electric shocks of increasing strength to people who were trying but failing to learn a task. (In fact these 'students' were actors, but the volunteers believed the set up was genuine.)

In the best known variant of the study, some two-thirds of people continued all the way up to the maximum 450 volt level. The studies have aroused furious controversy ever since, not only for their findings but for fears about the distress inflicted on those who participated.

However, a paper in the British Journal of Social Psychology by researchers Professor Alex Haslam (University of Queensland), Professor Stephen Reicher (University of St Andrews), Professor Kathryn Millard (Macquarie University) and Professor Rachel McDonald (University of Kansas) argues that the meaning of the experiment has been widely misunderstood.

As a result of archival research by Millard—who spent several months researching in the archives at Yale—the team gained access to the feedback that 659 of the 800 volunteers provided at the end of the experiment – after they had been 'dehoaxed' by the experimenter.

Far from being distressed by the experience, the researchers found that most volunteers said they were very happy to have participated.

Professor Alex Haslam commented:

"It appears from this feedback that the main reason participants weren't distressed is that they did not think they had done anything wrong. This was largely due to Milgram's ability to convince them that they had made an important contribution to science:"

"This provides new insight into the psychology of oppression and gels with other evidence that perpetrators are generally motivated, not by a desire to do evil, but by a sense that what they are doing is worthy and noble.

Professor Stephen Reicher added:

"This new analysis suggests that we may have misunderstood the ethical as well as the theoretical issues raised by Milgram's studies. We need to ask whether it is right to protect participants' own wellbeing by leading them to think that harming the wellbeing of others can be justified as long as it is in a good cause."

These new understandings contribute to Shock Room—a film by award-winning Australian director Kathryn Millard that is now in the final stages of post-production.

The film begins where Milgram's film ended. It explores how people make the choice to obey authority – but also when they choose to disobey.

Professor Kathryn Millard said:

"Milgram's success comes down to the fact that he was a skilful dramatist as well as a psychologist. Shock Room breaks open the Milgram 'Obedience to Authority' paradigm and re-evaluates its conclusions. It tells a powerful new story about the dark side of human nature through a creative collaboration across art and science that has broad relevance for contemporary society.

Explore further

Human obedience: The myth of blind conformity

More information: "'Happy to have been of service': The Yale archive as a window into the engaged followership of participants in Milgram's 'obedience' experiments," S. Alexander Haslam, Stephen D. Reicher, Kathryn Millard and Rachel McDonald, Article first published online: 5 SEP 2014. British Journal of Social Psychology, DOI: 10.1111/bjso.12074
Citation: Psychologists say Milgram's famous experiment on obedience to authority has been misunderstood (2014, September 5) retrieved 26 May 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Sep 05, 2014
"This provides new insight into the psychology of oppression and gels with other evidence that perpetrators are generally motivated, not by a desire to do evil, but by a sense that what they are doing is worthy and noble."

The tribal dynamic - internal altruism coupled with external animosity - we have been selected for it.

"Primeval man", he argued, "regarded actions as good or bad solely as they obviously affected the welfare of the tribe, not of the species". Among the living tribal peoples, he added, "the virtues are practised almost exclusively in relation to the men of the same tribe" and the corresponding vices "are not regarded as crimes" if practised on other tribes" (Darwin, 1871)

-Religion selected us for blind obedience to authorities who could direct the tribal instinct against designated enemies at will. Just like the attack dog. Leaders could evoke god to ascribe what was worthy and noble in his eyes, which could well be the slaughter of innocents in his name.

Sep 05, 2014
I do wonder (in total ignorance) whether this reflects more on the great strength of humanity - our desire and ability to cooperate - rather than that of destruction and war.

We always seem to focus on warfare in the past and present times - however it is demonstrable that trade was a major activity well back into antiquity - and most probably occurred even in our early ancestors. Trading nations have been the most successful -although perhaps not having the highest profile.

Sep 05, 2014
The Early Paleolithic copper cultures collapsed even tho they brought copper from the new world, aka UP copper. Collapse due to environmental stresses?
War is the result of unfairness. Even monkeys in experimental situations refuse to cooperate when the experimenter demonstrates unfairness among the subjects, so in Milgrams experiments the unfairness was at a distance. The distress was less because of the absence of the unfairness in the presence of the subject.
War combatants however commit unfairness face to face. This is a lasting erosion of humanity. We cannot be fully human in the best sense of the word by practicing unfairness. All control structures use this concept of obedience in the beaucracy to reward unfairness.

Sep 05, 2014
I would say the real world practices of ISIS on a mass scale massively verifies Milgram. Like cooking, the judgement is in the 'eating'. Not to mention the massive testimonies given in the Nuremburt Trials, and the horror of Pol Pot.

Sep 05, 2014
Just another demonstration of the perpetual deceit of the swindle factory called "science".
They could have carried out these examinations and come to these interpretations about the Milgam experiment long ago. For that matter, Milgram should have really his tainting of the experiment from the beginning. Yet is was all provided by the "journals" with absolute, utter and complete acceptance.
And, now, they commit the mistake of completely overshooting the truth to the absolute opposite.
In fact, nobody ever said necessarily that people who do evil things do it to be evil. But they don't necessarily do it because they see it as "noble", either! When someone steals, they don't see it necessarily as right, many don't care one way of the other, they just want! Many who kill do it simply to rid themselves of an immediate problem.
And, yes, there are those, like those who criticize the true, just to be annoying, who do it for deliberately evil purposes.

Sep 05, 2014
The archival material which was not reported in the original Milgram publication, by it's very existence, indicates that Milgram's 'conclusions' were based on information known by him at the time to be incomplete and which should have been recognized by him as prejudiced by the post-experimental debriefings. His 'dehoaxing' of the participants could only bias their statements. It is difficult enough to guarantee data quality in experiments dealing with human subjects. Providing the same subjects additional data (metadata regarding the exact nature of the experiment) before debriefing them makes it impossible.

Sep 05, 2014
In fact, nobody ever said necessarily that people who do evil things do it to be evil
Well your buddy jesus the wondergod said this very thing:

"19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed." jon3

-But scads of evidence confirm that he is but a sad copy of many earlier godmen and so we can conclude that he is a sham. Evidence dont lie. Only people who can disregard it are capable of lying.

Sep 05, 2014
I said at the time that this was theater and it was unethical. The primary point is impulsive acts are not the same as acts that persist over long periods of time. For example one of the men who developed motivational interviewing sat next to a woman on a commercial flight who sold small private planes for a living. By the time the flight landed the man wanted to buy one of the planes she sold. Does that mean the man wanted to buy a plane? No he changed his mind in less then twenty four hours. Persuasive people can be very effective over the short term but not the long term. Stanley Milgram like most academics was an anti-humanist. He created a theatrical production designed convince the world that humans we Nazis. His work his work was presented in a very theatrical was. Its biggest problem is it attempted to prove too much. If the very nature of humans is to be Nazis then the whole moral dimension of Nazism is lost.

Sep 06, 2014
"Obedience to authority" is one of the most common traits in human kind and is prevalent throughout human history.

The most common form of authority is religious authority whereby people happily kill, torture, burn at the stake, attempt genocide (as, for instance, described in the old testament, such as the genocidal pillage of Jericho described in the book of Joshua) and sacrifice animals and people including themselves as the rash of suicide bombings in recent years has shown.

Regardless of Milgram's showmanship, the subjects were showing a behaviour that is seen throughout the history of human-kind.

A contemporary example is the Hindu slaughter of thousands of animals with machetes, covering one's self in their blood as it squirts out from the severed neck and even drinking the blood. They also used human sacrifices until the British banned this practice in the 19th century.


Sep 06, 2014
Just goes to show you cant study human interaction effectively in a laboratory. Did anyone really think that the only reason the Germans behaved as they did during WW2 was because they were obedient? (And finding out why was the impetus for Milgrams research). What about the decades of propaganda and hatred before the war? What about people being scared of opposing authority and what about people who actually like hurting others?
Steven Reicher has done some really interesting studies around the Milgram findings - well worth a read.

Sep 06, 2014
The experiment shows the harm that ideology can do.

Sep 07, 2014
the great strength of humanity - our desire and ability to cooperate - rather than that of destruction and war.
Because of our tropical repro rate coupled with our systematic elimination of natural attritive elements, overpopulation has always been endemic and unavoidable. This has always resulted in conflict among tribes.

"There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection" (Darwin, 1871)

-Group selection favors blind obedience to authority. Tribes whose members were better able to cooperate would be expected to win out over others in battle.

-Conflict created our species.

Sep 07, 2014
Democrats and Progressives have learned this lesson very will. Renaming evil one of the easiest and biggest example

Pro abortion.... killing unborn baby.....right to choose.....and the reason the main stream media never refers to those against the killing of unborn babies as pro life and renames them anti abortion.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more