Milgram Replication in American Psychologist

Milgram obedience experimentThe long-awaited publication of the replication of Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience experiment, conducted by Santa Clara University (CA) psychologist Jerry Burger, has finally hit the pages of the American Psychological Association’s flagship journal, American Psychologist (unfortunately, only the abstract is freely available on-line).

In the experiment, participants were told they are in a learning experiment in which they will ask questions of another participant (who is really a confederate), and deliver shocks of increasing strength for every incorrect answer received. The shocks were fake and the experiment was really about the willingness of people to obey the orders of an authority figure such as a scientist, even when asked to do what appeared to be extreme harm to another person .

In the original experiments, conducted in the 1960s, about two-thirds of subjects (as they were then called) were willing to deliver shocks up to an apparent level of 450 volts, beyond a label reading “extreme shock” to one reading “XXX.” Although the results rocked the world of social psychology, the ethics of the experiment were called into question (due to the stress under which it put the participants) and the experiment was not replicated after the mid-1970s.

Burger modified Milgram’s procedure in ways that made it acceptable to the ethical review committee at his university and carried out the experiment again in 2007. In particular, he used a more elaborate screening process to remove from the participant pool people who were likely to be seriously upset by the procedure, and he cut the experiment off after the participant had reached 150 volts (at which point the confederate yelled from the other room that he refused to go on). Burger argued that this was virtually a point of no return for Milgram’s subjects: 80% who went beyond this point continued on to the very top of the shock scale.

Portions of the replications were shown on an episode of the television news magazine ABC Primetime (see the AHP report here). As reported there, Burger found that 70% of his participants obeyed the instructions of the experimenter up to 150 volts. Because he had more women participants that Milgram had, he was ale to make statistically meaningful comparisons between women’s and men’s obedience to authority. Contrary to what many had predicted over the years, women and men were no different in their willingness to obey the experimenter, women trending slightly higher than men.

These results seem to put to rest the oft-heard argument that people were more obedient and conforming in the early 1960s, and that people today would not behave as Milgram’s subjects had. As Milgram, among others, had claimed, the situation is a very powerful determinant of people’s behavior.

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.