The Milgram Experiment

Dangerous obedience - 450 volts against our value system

5 min read
The Milgram Experiment

In 1961, psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment. The aim of the experiment was to find out how willing the average person is to carry out the orders of an authoritarian person even if they contradict their own values ​​and moral concepts.

Characters of the experiment

There were three characters in the experiment:

  • an official experimenter
  • student and
  • teacher

Only the teachers were “real” participants in the experiment. Both the experimenter and the students were actors. However, this remained hidden from the subjects – the teachers. They assumed that the students would also be test subjects.

Preparation Of The Experiment

The subjects were told that the experiment was about investigating the connection between learning success and punishment.

Using a manipulated draw, the experimenter chose an actor to be the student and the actual test subject to be the teacher.

Milgram took over the experimental set-up, in which all participants except the test subjects are informed, from experiments by the psychologist Salomon Ash, who carried out the conformity experiment, among other things.

The teacher (the subject) was informed before the start of the experiment that the experimenter had instructed him to electrocute the student for each incorrect answer. The intensity of the electric shock should increase with each wrong answer.

In order to sensitize the test subject to what an electric shock feels like, a 45-volt electric shock was administered to them. In addition, the subject was shown the chair that the student would be tested on during the experiment. The sight of the chair was deliberately reminiscent of an electric chair, which is still used today for executions in the USA (last on February 20th, 2020 (source: Wikipedia )).

The subject was then shown the impressive desk that was specially made for this experiment, at which they would sit during the experiment. It was (in the basic version of the experiment) in another room. The lectern was wired to the student's chair and had 30 setting switches and 30 indicator lights. In addition to an imaginary type designation, the voltage range was also specified on the device: "Output 15 Volts-450 Volts" . Almost half of all adjustment switches were in an area marked with red writing. The last two switches were even labeled "XX". In addition, there was an area for displaying the currently set volt number.

Schematische Abbildung des Lehrerpults zur Übermittlung der Stromschläge

The desk was a dummy, but the test subjects were not aware of this. The subjects had to assume that they administered real electric shocks to the "students" in the experiment.

Course Of The Experiment

The core of the experiment was that the teacher (the subject) should ask the student (actor) about the composition of word pairs. He should follow the instructions of the experimenter (actor). At the experimenter's command, the teacher was to give the student an electric shock for each incorrect answer, increasing by 15 volts for each error. These were not real electric shocks, but this was hidden from the teacher. In the first variant of the experiment, the student was in an adjoining room. The teacher could therefore not see the student, but could only hear it through loudspeakers. The student (actor) reacted to the electric shocks according to a clearly defined scheme:

  • Above 75 volts, the student responded with a grunt/moan
  • From 120 volts, the student already reacted with screams of pain
  • At 150 volts, the student says he no longer wants to take part in the experiment because the pain is too severe
  • Above 200 volts, the student reacts with screams that suggest unbearable pain
  • Above 300 volts, the student no longer answers questions
  • Above 330 volts, the student no longer reacts at all

The experimenter (actor), who was in the same room with the teacher (the subject) in the basic version of the experiment, also reacted according to a previously defined scheme:

Whenever the teacher (subject) expressed doubts or wanted to stop the experiment, the experimenter responded with one of the following sentences:

  • the 1st time: " Please continue! ' or ' Please continue! "
  • on the 2nd time: " The experiment requires you to keep going!" "
  • on the 3rd time: “ It is absolutely necessary that you continue! "
  • on the 4th time: " You have no choice, you have to keep going!" "
  • the 5th time: termination of the experiment

There were other predefined responses from the experimenter:

  • if the student (actor) demanded 150 volts to be freed from his chair, the experimenter demanded that the experiment be continued for the benefit of science
  • when asked by the subject if the student might experience lasting damage, the experimenter replies, "Even though the shocks may be painful, there will be no lasting damage to the tissues, so please continue!"
  • when the subject says that the student wants to stop the experiment, the experimenter replies: "Whether the student likes it or not, you must continue until he has learned all the word pairs correctly. So please continue! "
  • when asked by the subject who is responsible for this, the experimenter assures the subject that he/she assumes full responsibility for everything that happens

Variants Of The Experiment

Because the results of the basic experiment were so surprising, the experiment was subsequently conducted in many modified forms. For example, the closeness between teacher and student has changed. There were the following grades:

  • remote room: The students are in an adjoining room and cannot be seen or heard by the teachers (subjects). Only a bang on the wall can be heard when the 300 volt mark is reached
  • acoustic feedback: The students are in a side room and cannot be seen by the teachers, but can be heard over a loudspeaker
  • proximity: The students are in a room with the teachers and the experimenters
  • touch Proximity: The teacher must place the student's gloved hand on a metal plate to transmit the electric shock

Results Of The Experiment

These are the surprising and at the same time frightening results of the experiment, considering the closeness between student and teacher:

  • far space: 65 percent of all subjects went to the maximum of 450 volts
  • acoustic feedback: 62.5 percent of all subjects went to the maximum of 450 volts
  • proximity to space: 40 percent of all test subjects went to the maximum of 450 volts
  • proximity to touch: 30 percent of all test subjects went up to the maximum of 450 volts


Most people are very willing to act against their own values ​​and moral concepts when ordered to do so,

  • when they have authority themselves (teachers)
  • when the commands come from an authority (experitor)
  • the greater the distance to the injured party (student).
  • when you can convince yourself that someone else (experimenter) is responsible for our actions

So it's not surprising that soldiers find it easier to launch a drone attack on command than to shoot an enemy in close combat. Also, based on these results, it is not surprising that many - after the Second World War - indicted SS officers said in court: "I was only following orders!".

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