Systematic Disobedience in Milgram’s Studies

Dominic PackerA meta-analysis by Dominic J. Packer, recently published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3(4), offers to shed new light on how we interpret the influential series of studies conducted by Stanley Milgram at Yale in July 1961.

A meta-analysis of data from eight of Milgram’s obedience experiments reveals previously undocumented systematicity in the behavior of disobedient participants. In all studies, disobedience was most likely at 150 v, the point at which the shocked “learner” first requested to be released. Further illustrating the importance of the 150-v point, obedience rates across studies covaried with rates of disobedience at 150 v, but not at any other point; as obedience decreased, disobedience at 150 v increased. In contrast, disobedience was not associated with the learner’s escalating expressions of pain. This analysis identifies a critical decision point in the obedience paradigm and suggests that disobedient participants perceived the learner’s right to terminate the experiment as overriding the experimenter’s orders, a finding with potential implications for the treatment of prisoners.

Yet this analysis does more than offer a new interpretation of a famous data set.  It also highlights one of the many benefits, for contemporary researchers, of studying history: finding results that are both significant and meaningful, both statistically and from the perspective of the discipline as a whole.

For interested readers, AHP has discussed Milgram on many previous occasions: Milgram Study Comes to Life (Again) (Dec 2007), Milgram Biography Reviewed in Isis (January 2008), Full ABC Milgram Replication Online (January), A Milgram Resister Speaks (May), and More on Milgram in NYT (July).

See also: Asch Conformity Replication (June 2008).

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About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

4 thoughts on “Systematic Disobedience in Milgram’s Studies

  1. The formal write-up of the replication of the Milgram experiment that was presented on ABC Primetime last year is slated to to appear in the January 2009 issue American Psychologist. The experiment was carried out by Jerry Burger of the University of California at Santa Clara. His website includes a link to a preprint of the article.

  2. I am having some difficulty understanding what is new in the findings of Dominic Parker’s meta-analysis of the Milgram experiments. 150 volts is where the confederate first asked that the experiment be stopped, correct?. As a result, it is where most of those subjects who were going to stop, contrary to the experimenters instructions, actually did so. This was commented on by Milgram himself, yes? And it was the reason that the Burger replication stopped the experiment at 150 volts. What is the importance of this finding now?

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