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What types of social situations make it more likely that we’ll obey authority? You’ll observe Milgram’s electric shock experiment and what it revealed about the relationship between obedience and authority. How far would you go to obey authority? Would you go against your own conscience?

Milgram’s Obedience Experiment

Psychologist Stanley Milgram
Milgrams Experiment

Perhaps one of the most famous psychological experiments of all time, Stanley Milgram’s controversial obedience study set out to demonstrate the extent to which people follow the instructions of authority figures. Forty male volunteers between the ages of 20 and 50 were told that they were involved in a learning experiment and were directed to administer electric shocks by flipping a switch when the actor in a separate room responded with a wrong answer. Unbeknownst to the participants, the actor was actually not being shocked but was acting as though he was.

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The participants were instructed by this Yale scientist to increase the level of intensity by 15 volts each time the actor answered incorrectly. Five of the 40 of the participants refused to continue after 300 volts when the actor screamed and banged on the wall, acting as if he was in excruciating pain.

  • The actor shouts phrases such as ‘Let me out of here!’ and ‘You have no right to keep me here!’ The participant turns away from the switch apparatus to look toward the shouting.
  • Speaking over the actor, the scientist says calmly, ‘Continue, please.

  • The participant mumbles something. The actor is still shouting.
  • The scientist says calmly, ‘Go on,’ while the actor yells.
  • The participant turns back to the switch apparatus. He mumbles something that includes the phrase ‘be responsible for it.

Surprisingly, 65% participants continued to administer 450-volt shocks at Professor Milgram’s insistence that their participation was essential to the experiment. Although the participants were acting out the instructions of the authority figure, it’s important to note that they were doing so willingly and the switch was labeled ‘danger: severe shock.’

Summary

Why did the participants obey? The presence of a respected authority, a Yale professor, lent an air of legitimacy to the experiment.What are the perceived consequences of disobeying an authority figure? Milgram’s experiment makes it clear that, within certain social situations, people are willing to release responsibility to a higher authority rather than take responsibility for their individual actions. The perceived authority of Professor Milgram rested on his authority as a professor at an elite institution, the fact that it was his experiment and the status of science.

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