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The Strengths and Limitations of Milgram’s Obedience Experiment: A Look into Laboratory Experiments

In the field of social psychology, Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiment, conducted in the early 1960s, is a well-known and highly controversial study. The study aimed to investigate the level of obedience to authority and the willingness of individuals to follow orders, even if they went against their conscience or moral beliefs.

This article examines Milgram’s original experiment, its procedure, results, and conclusions, as well as the impact of the experiment on contemporary social psychology. Additionally, this article discusses two recent adaptations of Milgram’s experiment, focusing on their respective procedures and results.

Procedure of the Original Experiment

In the original experiment, carried out by Stanley Milgram in 1961, 40 male volunteers were recruited to participate in a lab experiment. Participants were told they were taking part in a study concerned with the influence of punishment on learning.

They were then randomly assigned either the role of “teacher” or “learner.” The learner was an accomplice of the researchers and was always assigned the role of the “learner.” While the teacher was asked to deliver a series of electric shocks to the learner as punishment for incorrect responses. The shocks ranged from 15 to 450 volts, and the voltage increased with each incorrect answer.

The participants did receive an electric shock of 45 volts to demonstrate its strength, but after that, the shocks were simulated. The teacher could hear the learner in the adjacent room, shouting in agony and asking the teacher to stop.

The original hypothesis of the experiment was that most of the participants would refuse to continue with the experiment after the learner began to protest. However, the results of the experiment were surprising, with over 60% of the participants obeying the authority figure in the room and continuing to administer shocks until the maximum voltage had reached.

The experiment demonstrated that when placed in a situation where obedience to an authority figure is expected, even normal, well-adjusted people are willing to cause pain to others.

Results and Conclusion

The conclusion that the participants in Milgram’s experiment were willing to deliver what they believed to be increasingly powerful shocks to another person, despite the obvious distress it caused, demonstrated the power of authority in shaping an individual’s behavior. The experiment indicated that individuals’ willingness to conform to authority figures played a vital role in the functioning of family, school, and workplace environments, as well as dictatorship, and obedience can cause people to contravene their moral principles.

Following publication of the study, it faced significant ethical issues concerning participant deception, the psychological effects it had on participants, and the level of informed consent. The study continues to provoke debates on the morality of the research as it essentially instructed participants to break their code of ethics intentionally.

However, the experiment concerning ethical issues, its peculiar results, and the overall contribution to understanding authority figures in society have long stood the test of time. Conscientious objector, the BBC documentary screened in 2008, set out to re-examine the controversial study, and again found similar results, indicating that most participants obeyed the authority figure throughout the experiment.

The BBC Documentary (2008)

In the BBC documentary, participants of various ages and backgrounds took part in the experiment attempting to re-create Milgram’s research. While the modern experiment was slightly different, in that participants did not deliver the shocks, the results showed that 72% of those taking part were willing to push a button that they were told would administer an electric shock.

The documentary showed that the experiment still holds significance today, with similar levels of obedience found as in the original study. Furthermore, the experiment showed how participants still struggled to disobey the authority figure even when under physical and mental stress.

Darren Brown’s ‘The Heist’ (2014)

Another adaptation of Milgram’s experiment occurred in 2014, when British illusionist, Darren Brown, carried out a highly publicized version of the obedience experiment. Brown’s program tested how ordinary people responded to a situation where it was suggested they commit a staged robbery.

Participants were put in a highly pressurized environment, where authority figures instructed them to take part in the robbery. The results showed that participants were highly responsive to the authority figures, in both an active and passive sense, with some participants even prepared to commit robbery, despite knowing it was wrong.

The experiment highlighted the impact of the Hawthorne Effect, whereby participants can behave differently when they know they are being watched, further underpinning that the power of authority can cause individuals to act against their own values. Conclusion:

Milgram’s obedience experiment has continued to provoke discussion and debate for several decades, with its ongoing relevance demonstrated in its influence on contemporary research in psychology, sociology, and political science.

This study acts as a warning as to the effect that a person of authority can have on an individual’s behavior, which in modern times has shown starkly in mass genocide. The adaptations of Milgram’s experiment, as shown in the BBC documentary and Darren Brown’s “The Heist,” demonstrate that even today, individuals continue to adhere to authority figures, even when their actions conflict with their moral compass.

Despite the continued debate concerning the ethics of the study, its results have implications for further research and the understanding of the role of authority in real-world settings.Milgram’s obedience experiment is frequently cited as a classic example of a laboratory experiment in social psychology. Laboratory experiments enable researchers to create a controlled environment that enables the manipulation of independent variables to study the impact on the dependent variable.

This article examines the strengths and limitations of laboratory experiments by examining Milgram’s obedience experiment’s specific case. Advantages of Milgram’s Experiment

Reliability is a significant strength of laboratory experiments.

Milgram’s obedience experiment was conducted in a controlled environment and designed to have precise controls that permitted researchers to control variables that might have impacted the participant’s actions. Furthermore, laboratory experiments typically have testing protocols that are similar or identical, which allows for replication of the study in a methodological way.

Milgram’s experiment’s main aims were to challenge existing theories related to obedience to authority, and it resulted in a paradigm shift in the understanding of this topic. His experiment debunked the prevailing view that only a small minority of individuals would display quiescence to authority figures under certain conditions, highlighting that the impact of social influence can cause people to act in ways that conflict with their moral judgment.

His experiment demonstrated that even if an individual’s personal judgment was not impacted, the presence of a perceived authority could overpower other factors. Limitations of Milgram’s Experiment

Artificiality is a significant limitation of laboratory experiments, which is a concern when attempting to generalize results from laboratory studies into real-world scenarios.

Milgram’s obedience experiment involved participants in a controlled environment with set conditions and laboratory-backed script prompts, which differs significantly from real-world situations. Therefore, in the real world, individuals might respond differently to the presence of authority figures than they would in a laboratory study.

One limitation of Milgram’s experiment which is often questioned is the use of the experimenter, as the authority figure, responsible for managing the participant’s actions. The experiment relied heavily on the participant viewing the experimenter as a person of authority.

However, the experimenter intentionally wore a lab coat, a sign of scientific respect and authority, to signify their role. In reality, individuals may not view someone wearing a lab coat as the authority figure, and the use of non-representative authority figures in other studies could lead to different results.

The Hawthorne Effect is another limitation of laboratory experiments, whereby participants may alter their behavior due to their awareness of being observed in the study. This effect can operate in two directions, with participants either acting differently because they know they’re being observed, or by trying to guess what the researchers want, enough so that they provide information that they believe will align with the study.

Hawthorne effect can, therefore, affect the level of obedience demonstrated in laboratory experiments. Another limitation from Milgram’s experiment was the display of some significant ethical issues.

The experiment displayed problems with informed consent, deception, and debriefing. Had ethical protocols been stronger, the experiment would be much different, or researchers may have refrained from conducting the study entirely, perhaps to the detriment of understanding the social sciences.


In summary, laboratory experiments provide researchers with advantages such as control over independent variables, consistent testing protocols, and reliable results. Milgram’s obedience experiment was an excellent example of this, enabling researchers to challenge existing theories and believed mechanisms concerning obedience to authority figures.

It is a testament to the significance of the experiment, that it remains highly relevant today, despite the ethical concerns. However, the artificiality of laboratory experiments is a significant limitation, as the controlled environment, non-representative authority figures, and the Hawthorne Effect, mean that it is hard to generalize results into real-world settings.

Milgram’s experiment bore these limitations, and the ethical issues that surfaced around its operation have reiterated the need to prioritize experimental guidelines related to informed consent, deception, procedural oversight and debriefing in order to find the most benefiting balance between keeping experiments ethical while testing and improving sociologies understanding of how humans act when faced with authority figures. The key takeaways from Milgram’s experiment as it relates to laboratory experiments are continual calls for researchers to balance the benefits and limitations of experimental research.

This balance highlights the critical role that laboratories continue to play in social psychology’s sphere, and to continue improving ethical protocols in experimentation to make sure researchers are acting and responding to the data in the most accessible and foreseeable way. In conclusion, this article has examined Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiment and the strengths and limitations of laboratory experiments.

The controlled environment of laboratory experiments provides researchers with reliable results to challenge existing theories, such as the impact of social influence on individuals when faced with authority figures. However, laboratory experiments are artificial environments that have inherent limitations, including the non-representative nature of authority figures and the Hawthorne Effect.

While continued improvements to ethical protocols are essential, laboratory experiments remain a fundamental tool in social psychology research, providing valuable insight into human behavior.



What was Milgram’s obedience experiment? Milgram’s obedience experiment aimed to investigate the level of obedience to authority and the willingness of individuals to follow orders, even if they went against their conscience or moral beliefs.

Participants were asked to administer electric shocks to a supposed learner during the experiment. 2.

What were the advantages of Milgram’s experiment methods? The experiment presented researchers with reliable results to challenge, and later change, existing theories concerning the impact of authority figures in dictating behavior in social environments.

3. What were the limitations of Milgram’s experiment methods?

The primary limitations of Milgram’s experiment methods included artificiality in simulated events, non-representative authority figures, the Hawthorne Effect, and ethical issues concerning participant deception, psychological effects on participants, and informed consent. 4.

What is the significance of laboratory experiments in social psychology? Laboratory experiments play a crucial role in social psychology, providing controlled environments to study human behavior, test theories, and derive reliable results that researchers can use to understand complex human behavior and social phenomena.

5. What balance should researchers strike when conducting laboratory experiments?

Researchers should aim to balance the strengths of laboratory experiments’ controlled environments and the limitations of artificiality, non-representative authority figures, and the Hawthorne Effect. Researchers should prioritize ethical protocols to ensure experiments are conducted responsibly to further sociologies understanding of human behavior.

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