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Milgram’s Experiment on Obedience: Ethical Issues Essay

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Updated: Jun 10th, 2020


The experimental method is an important tool that allows scientists to make significant discoveries. However, some of the most major findings were made during experiments the ethical side of which remains doubtful. The experiments conducted by Milgram in the 1960s are an example of such studies; their results were among the most significant discoveries about the human’s behavioural tendencies, but the method caused a vast amount of discussions on ethical issues. In this paper, after describing the Milgram’s main experiment and its findings, we will consider the ethical problems that arise, and discuss some similar experiments that were adapted to avoid these problems.

Milgram’s Main Experiment

The main experiment conducted by Milgram (1963) was designed to test the level of naive subjects’ obedience to authority. The subjects were told that the experiment tested the potency of punishment in improving learning capabilities, and were asked to administer electrical shocks to a “learner” (an accomplice of the experimenter). The subject did not know the shocks were false; measures were taken to convince the subject that the shocks were real. The “learner” was given some pairs of words. Then he was told one word from one of the pairs, and four more words. The “learner” had to choose the word that came in a pair with the first word, and press a respective button, which turned on a respective light that the participant could see. The subject did not see or hear the learner. If the answer was wrong, the subject was to apply an electric shock to the “learner” and continue.

Each time the subject had to increase the voltage of the shock by 15 V. The voltage of electric shocks ranged from 15 V to 450 V, and there were 30 switches; they were subdivided into the following groups: “Slight Shock, Moderate Shock, Strong Shock, Very Strong Shock, Intense Shock, Extreme Intensity Shock, Danger: Severe Shock” (Milgram, 1963); the last two switches were marked XXX. When the participant paused or stopped, four standardized phrases were used to tell them to go on. If, after being told all the phrases, the subject refused to administer more shocks, they were considered as one who defied the experiment. The others, who carried on and administered the highest shock (450 V), were considered obedient (Milgram, 1963).

Importantly, when the subject applied the 300 V shock (the last one in the “Intense Shock” subsection), the “learner” kicked the wall so that the subject could hear it, and stopped giving answers. The “learner” once again kicked the wall at 315 V (the first level in the “Extreme Intensity Shock” subsection), and then stopped giving any feedback at all. The subject was asked to wait for 5-10 seconds for the answer, and when none was received, to proceed applying shocks.

The subjects were agitated; they perspired, groaned, bit their lips, dug fingernails into their flesh, spoke to themselves, nervously laughed, etc.; 3 subjects experienced uncontrollable seizures of laughter. However, out of 40 subjects, 26 carried out the experiment to the end and administered the 450 V shock. None stopped at a level below 300 V. Five stopped at 300 V (after the first kick), four at 315 V (the second kick), two – at 330 V (when no response followed). Finally, three more persons stopped, one at every of the next three levels. Thus, out of 40 subjects, only 14 defied the experiment, and at very high levels of voltage (Milgram, 1963).

These results strictly contradicted all the predictions made by psychologists; it was expected that only about 0-3% of subjects would administer the highest level of shock (Milgram, 1963). However, similar experiments (with slight variations) were carried out later in other countries, and they also showed analogous levels of obedience in subjects (Smith & Bond, 1998, p. 23; Shanab & Yahya, 1978).

It is noteworthy that Milgram’s experiments are believed to have been somewhat exaggerated or altered by Milgram to produce stronger impact (Brannigan, Nicholson, & Cherry, 2015). However, it is stressed that few researchers doubted the soundness of his results (McArthur, 2009); the soundness is also confirmed by other similar studies (Smith & Bond, 1998, p. 23; Shanab & Yahya, 1978).

The Ethical Issues of Milgram’s Experiment

This experiment is considered to be one of the most controversial experiments conducted by social psychologists (Smith & Bond, 1998, p. 22). In many experiments, it is important that subjects are not aware of the nature of the study, so that their natural behaviour might be observed (Orne & Holland, 1968). However, the experiment conducted by Milgram uses direct lies and deception in order to prepare the participants for the test. This raises the ethical problem of deception. It is sometimes stated that it is unethical to lie or use tricks in order to lead participants to believe in false things (Herrera, 2001).

On the other hand, Herrera (2001) argues that many critics who protest against deception are often unable to show what is wrong with it and how the participants suffer from deception on its own. It is arguable that as long as participants do not come to any harm or stress due to being deceived as a part of an experiment, and as long as they are debriefed and told the truth after the study, it could be ethical to use deception and manipulation in research.

However, the case of Milgram’s experiment is more complicated than that. His test subjects were not only deceived; they were put in a situation where they were forced to make extremely tough moral decisions and harm the “learner,” a random innocent stranger. It was already mentioned that the subjects were anxious and agitated. In fact, some of them even might have experienced some dire consequences to their health, if they, for example, had heart problems; fortunately, there were no such happenings. Still, the ethical side of the experiment remains doubtful.

Thus, it is no wonder that Milgram’s research caused a large wave of discussions related to the ethics of scientific research. It should be noted that many of Milgram’s subjects were afterward grateful to him for letting them know about some features of their character they would not have suspected about before the study (Milgram, 1974). Still, nowadays numerous restrictions were placed to keep research from becoming too unethical. The significant loss in the amount of experimental realism has charged its costs, making some more sophisticated experiments impossible (Benjamin & Simpson, 2009).

There are, however, some workarounds for these limitations. For instance, Benjamin and Simpson (2009) mention that it is possible to use “experimental instructions or manipulations that lead participants to believe they might experience some event or procedure that, in the end, never happens” (p. 18). But the ethical limitations still restrict the space for conducting experiments.

Milgram also claimed that his experiments caused the ethical criticism because extremely unnerving facts about the tendencies in human behaviour were uncovered (Milgram, 1974). Noteworthy, this discovery may indeed be even dangerous in some cases, by showing some malevolent politicians how easy it might be to make people obey (Pina e Cunha, Rego, & Clegg, 2010). But many significant scientific discoveries might carry that threat, and it is arguable that they still bring more good than harm; in our case, if people know about the Milgram’s experiment, they might be less likely to obey openly harmful orders coming from some authority.

Attempts to Replicate Milgram’s Study

while Using Ethically Approved Methods

There have been numerous attempts to replicate the Milgram’s experiment. However, these attempts often changed some conditions of the original experiment – not only to test the influence of changing different variables but also because of the need to comply with the new ethical restrictions imposed on the studies. For example, Smith and Bond (1998) report a number of studies where participants could choose what level of shock to administer (p. 24). In another research carried out in the Netherlands, the subjects did not administer electrical shocks or use other means of pain infliction, but instead applied psychological pressure, screaming at and harassing fake job applicants (Smith & Bond, 1998, p. 24). Such a method might be perceived as much more ethical, as the subjects knew that they would not be causing any physical pain to the job applicants and would not harm their health (like an electric shock could).

Sheridan and King (1972) conducted another experiment in which participants, students who volunteered to take part in the experiment in order to fulfil a university course requirement, were to administer electrical shocks to a puppy they could partially see. After the experiment, the subjects were debriefed, reassured that the puppy was safe, handled the puppy, and interviewed. This experiment could be considered as more ethical due to the fact that, even though the shock was believed to be administered, the receiver was not a human but an animal. However, it is clear and justified that agitation and nervousness were still experienced by the subjects.

Slater et al. (2006) carried out another similar study, but with somewhat different goals; it was aimed at determining whether participants would still respond to an extreme social situation even if they knew it was not real. This time, the subjects “administered” an electric shock (with a “higher voltage” each time) to a virtual female stranger. 23 participants heard and saw the virtual human experience discomfort and suffering, and communicated with her; 11 subjects communicated with her only using text. It is interesting that, despite the fact that all the participants knew that neither the shocks nor the person were real, they still showed the same physiological, behavioural and subjective reactions as if everything was real. This important finding allows to continue experiments similar to Milgram’s by employing the modern technologies of virtual reality, without having to deal with ethical issues related to both deception and the belief that a real person (or an animal) is suffering.


As it can be seen, Milgram’s findings were significant in uncovering some tendencies of human behaviour that are dangerous indeed. His research caused a surge of similar studies, as well as numerous discussions on the ethics of the experimental method. Although many restrictions were imposed on the scientific methods due to ethical considerations, and these restrictions often limit the capabilities of scholars, researchers are in some cases able to find workarounds to these limitations in order to conduct similar studies in an ethically satisfying manner.


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Brannigan, A., Nicholson, I., & Cherry, F. (2015). Introduction to the special issue: Unplugging the Milgram machine. Theory & Psychology, 25(5), 551-563.

Herrera, C. D. (2001). Ethics, deception, and ‘those Milgram experiments’. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 18(3), 245-258.

McArthur, D. (2009). Good ethics can sometimes mean better science: Research ethics and the Milgram experiments. Science and Engineering Ethics, 15(1), 69-79. Web.

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371–378. Web.

Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority: An experimental view. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

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Sheridan, C. L., & King, R. G., Jr. (1972). Obedience to authority with an authentic victim. Proceedings of the 80th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association. Web.

Slater, M., Antley, A., Davison, A., Swapp, D., Guger, C., Barker, C.,…Sanchez-Vives, M. V. (2006). A virtual reprise of the Stanley Milgram obedience experiments. PLoS One, 1(1), e39. Web.

Smith, P. B., & Bond, M. H. (1998). Social psychology across cultures (2nd ed.). Harlow, England: Pearson Education Limited.

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