Behavioral Study of Obedience

In Simple English:

Experimenters wanted to find out if people would follow orders, even if the orders went against their conscience. Participants (acting as “teachers”) gave what they thought were electric shocks to “learners”. The “learners” were actually actors, and the shocks were not real. The learners reacted as if they were in real pain. As the “shocks” increased, they acted as if in very bad pain.

If at any time the subject (“teacher”) wanted to stop the experiment, he was given a succession of verbal prods by the experimenter, in this order:

  1. Please continue.
  2. The experiment requires that you continue.
  3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  4. You have no other choice, you must go on.

If the subject still wished to stop after all four successive verbal prods, the experiment was halted. Otherwise, it was halted after the subject had given the maximum “450-volt” shock three times in succession.

26 participants out of 40 obeyed and administered the final 450V shock. Only 14 decided to resign at some point of the experiment.

Participant were very nervous during the experiment, in some cases it resulted in uncontrolled laughter.


This articles describes a procedure for the study of destructive obedience in the laboratory. It consists of ordering a naive S to administer increasingly more severe punishment to a victim in the context of a learning experiment. Punishment is administered by means of a shock generator with 30 graded switches ranging from Slight Shock to Danger: Severe Shock. The victim is a confederate of the E. The primary dependent variable is the maximum shock the S is willing to administer before he refuses to continue further. 26 Ss obeyed the experimental commands fully, and administered the highest shock on the generator. 14 Ss broke off the experiment at some point after the victim protested and refused to provide further answers. The procedure created extreme levels of nervous tension in some Ss. Profuse sweating, trembling, and stuttering were typical expressions of this emotional disturbance. One unexpected sign of tension—yet to be explained—was the regular occurrence of nervous laughter, which in some Ss developed into uncontrollable seizures. The variety of interesting behavioral dynamics observed in the experiment, the reality of the situation for the S, and the possibility of parametric variation within the framework of the procedure, point to the fruitfulness of further study.

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Basic information:

Behavioral Study of obedience.
Milgram, Stanley
The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, Vol 67(4), Oct 1963, 371-378.

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