The Milgram experiment was a famous scientific experiment of social psychology. The experiment was first described by Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University in an article titled Behavioral Study of Obedience published in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology in 1963, and later summarized in his 1974 book Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. It was intended to measure the willingness of a participant to obey an authority who instructs the participant to do something that may conflict with the participant's personal conscience.

The experiments began in July 1961, a year after the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Milgram devised the experiment to answer the question "Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?" (Milgram, 1974)

Milgram summed up in the article "The Perils of Obedience" (Milgram 1974), writing:

"The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous import, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects' [participants'] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects' [participants'] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation."

Method of the experiment

The method of Milgram's original experiment was as follows:

Subjects were recruited via a newspaper ad and direct mail solicitation to participate in a "study of memory" at Yale. (The experiments themselves took place in two rooms in the basement of Linsly-Chittenden Hall, on the university's Old Campus.) The experiment was advertised as taking one hour, for which those responding would be paid $4.50. Participants were men between the ages of 20 and 50, coming from all educational backgrounds from an elementary school dropout to participants with doctoral degrees.

The participant and a confederate (an actor pretending to be another participant) are told by the experimenter that they will be participating in an experiment to test the effects of punishment on learning behavior.

A slip of paper is given to the participant, another to the confederate. The participant is led to believe that one of the slips says "learner" and one says "teacher" and that he is randomly given one of the slips. The actor claims to have been assigned as "learner," so the participant is led to believe that the roles have been chosen randomly. In actuality both slips say "teacher," while the actor just misreports what is on his slip; no element of randomness is involved.

The participant chosen as the teacher is given a sample 45-volt electric shock from the electro-shock generator, as a "sample" of the shock the "learner" will supposedly receive during the experiment. The "teacher" is then given a list of word pairs which he is to teach the learner. The teacher begins by reading off a list of word pairs to the learner. After reading through the word pairs, the teacher will then only read the first half of the word pairs, and read 4 possible answers. The learner will indicate which second word he believes to be correct by pressing a button (1 through 4) corresponding to the teacher's choices. If incorrect, the learner will receive a shock, increasing by 15 volts with each wrong answer. If correct, the next word pair is read.

The teacher believes that he is actually giving shocks to the learner participant. In reality, there are no shocks being given to the learner. Once the learner was separated, the learner set up a tape recorder, integrated with the electro-shock generator, which would play pre-recorded tracks at certain shock levels. After a certain number of level increases, the actor starts to bang on the wall that separates him from the teacher (subject). After banging on the wall and complaining of his heart condition (which he talked about at the beginning of the experiment), the learner gives no further response to the questions and no further complaints.

It is at this point that many people begin to indicate their desire to stop the experiment and check on the subject. Many test subjects stop at 135 volts and begin to question the purpose of the experiment. Some continue after being assured that they will not be held responsible. Some participants even begin to laugh nervously once they hear the screams of pain coming from the learner.

If, at any time, the subject indicates his desire to halt the experiment he is given a succession of verbal prods by the experimenter, such as: "The experiment requires that you continue. Please go on." If the subject still wishes to stop after four successive verbal prods, the experiment is halted.

In the original experiment, though some went to the end of the shocks (450 volts), everyone stopped at some point and questioned the experiment. Others even said they would return the check for the money they were paid. Later results and multiple test set-ups showed that the closer the teacher was to the learner the sooner he stopped.


Milgram created a documentary film showing the experiment and its results, titled "Obedience", legitimate copies of which are hard to find today. He also produced a series of five other films on social psychology with Harry From, some of which touched on his experiments . They may all be obtained from Penn State Media Services.

Before the experiment was conducted Milgram polled fellow psychologists as to what the results would be. They unanimously believed that only a few sadists would be prepared to give the maximum voltage.

In Milgram's first set of experiments, 65 percent (27 out of 40) of experimental participants administered the experiment's final 450-volt shock, though many were quite uncomfortable in doing so. No participant stopped before the 300-volt level. Variants of the experiment were later performed by Milgram himself and other psychologists around the world with similar results. Apart from confirming the original results the variations have tested variables in the experimental setup.

Thomas Blass of the University of Maryland (who is also the author of a biography of Milgram, called The Man who shocked the World) performed a meta-analysis on the results of repeated performances of the experiment (done at various times since, in the US and elsewhere). He found that the percentage of participants who are prepared to inflict fatal voltages remains remarkably constant, between 61% and 66%, regardless of time or location (a popular account of Blass' results was published in Psychology Today, March/April 2002). The full results were published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology.


The experiment raised questions about the ethics of scientific experimentation itself because of the extreme emotional stress suffered by the participants (even though it could be said that this stress was brought on by their own free actions). Most modern scientists would consider the experiment unethical today, though it resulted in valuable insights into human psychology.

In Milgram's defense, 84 percent of former participants surveyed later said they were "glad" or "very glad" to have participated and 15 percent chose neutral (92% of all former participants responding). Many later wrote expressing thanks. Milgram repeatedly received offers of assistance and requests to join his staff from former participants.

Why so many former participants reported they were "glad" to have been involved despite the apparent levels of stress, one participant explained to Milgram in correspondence six years after he participated in the experiment, during the height of the Vietnam War:

"While I was a subject [participant] in 1964, though I believed that I was hurting someone, I was totally unaware of why I was doing so. Few people ever realize when they are acting according to their own beliefs and when they are meekly submitting to authority. ... To permit myself to be drafted with the understanding that I am submitting to authority's demand to do something very wrong would make me frightened of myself. ... I am fully prepared to go to jail if I am not granted Conscientious Objector status. Indeed, it is the only course I could take to be faithful to what I believe. My only hope is that members of my board act equally according to their conscience..."
In contrast to the life-changing experience reported by some former participants, however, participants were not fully debriefed by modern standards and many seemed to never fully understand the nature of the experiment according to exit interviews.


Milgram describes 19 variations of the experiment that he conducted in Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. In general, he found that when the immediacy of the victim was increased, compliance decreased, and when immediacy of the authority increased, compliance increased (Experiments 1–4). For instance, in one variation where participants received instructions from the experimenter only by telephone (Experiment 2), compliance greatly decreased; interestingly, a number of participants deceived the experimenter by pretending to continue the experiment. In the variation where immediacy of the "learner" was closest, participants had to physically hold the learner's arm onto a shock plate, which decreased compliance (Experiment 4). In this latter condition 30 percent still completed the experiment.

In Experiment 8, women were used as participants (all of Milgram's other experiments used only men). Obedience did not differ significantly, though they indicated experiencing higher levels of stress.

In one version (Experiment 10), Milgram rented a modest office in Bridgeport, Connecticut, purporting to be run by a commercial entity called "Research Associates of Bridgeport" with no apparent connection to Yale, in order to eliminate the prestige of the university as a possible factor influencing participants' behavior. The results of this experiment did not significantly differ from those conducted at the Yale campus.

Milgram also combined the power of authority with that of conformity. In these experiments, the participant was joined by one or two additional "teachers" (who were actually actors, like the "learner"). The behavior of the participants' apparent peers strongly affected results. When two additional teachers refused to comply (Experiment 17), only four participants of 40 continued the experiment. In another version, (Experiment 18) the participant performed a subsidiary task with another "teacher" who complied fully. In this variation only three of 40 defied the experimenter.

In popular culture

Variations on the Milgram experiment have pervaded the popular culture through films and music.

The Tenth Level at the Internet Movie Database, was a 1975 TV dramatization of the experiment. Starring in the film were William Shatner, Ossie Davis, and John Travolta.
I comme Icare (English title: I as in Icarus), a 1979 movie by Henri Verneuil starring Yves Montand, contains a key scene where Milgram's experiment on obedience to authority is brilliantly explained and shown. It may add up to some conspiracy theories regarding the assassination of John F. Kennedy, since the plot of this film is largely an obvious subtext to the assassination of the Kennedy brothers.
Mon oncle d'Amérique, a 1980 movie by Alain Resnais, involves an experiment similar to Milgram's.
Ghostbusters, a blockbuster 1984 movie written by Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd, contains a scene introducing Bill Murray's character to the audience as a sly professor administering electrical shocks to a hapless college student while flirting with an attractive co-ed. Harold Ramis has said that this parody was inspired by the Milgram Experiment.
"We Do What We're Told (Milgram's 37)" is a Peter Gabriel song found in his 1986 album So. The title refers to the 37 out of 40 participants who showed complete obedience in one particular experiment.