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Notorious Experiments in Psychology: Milgram Experiment

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In 1971, the scene of the most notorious experiment took place at Stanford University. Professor Philip Zimbardo was interested in what happens when you put good people in an evil place. Does the situation outside of you, the institution come to control your behavior, or do the things inside of you, your values, and your moralities allow you to rise above a negative environment? The negative environment he chose to put his participants in was a prison. He converted the basement of the university into a jail. In the cells, there was nothing but three beds, and on the other side was solitary confinement where prisoners were put for punishment. When you close the door, it was completely dark.

The guards wore military uniforms and silver reflecting sunglasses so you cannot see their eyes, losing some of their humanity. They wanted the guards to be seen as a person of power over the prisoners. His participants were paid 15 dollars a day and randomly assigned the role of guard or prisoner. The guards were given the job to keep the prisoners in line. They had to maintain law and order without using physical violence. The guards began by humiliating them and making fun of them. The guards figured it was an experiment to show how cruel and inhumane prisons are and so they would do their best to get those results.

On day two the prisoners decided to rebel. They used their beds as a barrier to their cell. They were against having to follow orders from these so-called guards who were actually students. The guards felt as though they had to look tough. The prisoners made the mistake of using profanity against the guards in a very personal way and the guards got furious. The prisoners were woken in the middle of the night and told to clean toilets with their bare hands.

Zimbardo became obsessed with his prison and lost sight of the reason he was doing this experiment in the first place. He thought the prisoners were going to break out, so he made the guards dismantle the prison just for them to rebuild it because it was a rumor. The guards were furious and took it out on the prisoners. They escalated the level of control and dominance. One prisoner refused to take part in the study by barricading himself in his cell so the guards made all the other prisoners shout “prisoner 819 did a bad thing”. The prisoner began crying thinking that the others hated him. He requested to be let out of the experiment early and had to be replaced.

This one guard, called John Wayne, made the decision to be as mean and cruel as he could possibly be, coming up with unique ways to degrade the prisoners. Eventually, prisoner 416 couldn’t handle it anymore and took matters into his own hands. He went on a hunger strike to push their limits. The guard was getting upset and was going to make the prisoner suffer for his disobedience. Frustrated by his continuous defiance, John Wayne threw prisoner 416 into the hole and encouraged the other prisoners to take out their anger on 416 verbally. He made a deal with the other prisoners that they could keep their blankets but prisoner 416 had to stay in the hole another night.

One day, the prisoners were made to go to the bathroom in chains and bags over their heads. Zimbardo realized that young men were being tortured and he was responsible for it. He shut down the experiment the next day and released everyone from prison. Young men suffered verbally and physically, guards felt guilt. Zimbardo realized it was unethical and that nobody had the power to treat people like that. He acknowledged that he should have had a colleague watch over the experiment who was in a position to end it at any time. He should not have played both roles.

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Stanley Milgram looked at how we respond to authority. In order to understand how people were induced to obey he set up an experiment. Volunteers were randomly assigned to play the role of a teacher or student. Separated by a screen the teacher would ask the learner questions and administer an electric shock when answered incorrectly. He was told to increase the voltage with each wrong answer. Participants didn’t know that the learner was actually an actor and the so-called shock harmless. Two-thirds of the volunteers were prepared to administer an eventually fatal electric shock when told to do so by an authority figure. This showed that decent American citizens were as capable of committing acts against their conscience as the Germans had been under the Nazis.

Site. Before conducting the Milgram experiment, Stanley Milgram asked various people for their predictions. They thought that most participants would go no higher than 135 volts. From the results, we see that although most subjects were uncomfortable doing it, all 40 subjects obeyed up to 300 volts. 25 of the 40 subjects continued to complete to give shocks until the maximum level of 450 volts was reached. Before the Stanley Milgram Experiment, experts thought that about 1-3 % of the subjects would not stop giving shocks. They thought that you’d have to be pathological or a psychopath to do so. Still, 65 % never stopped giving shocks. None stopped when the learner said he had heart trouble. How could that be? We now believe that it has to do with the almost innate behavior that we should do as told, especially by authorized persons. We have this uncontrollable need to do as we're told, especially when demanded by an authority figure.

Individualization. The study done by Zimbardo provided a graphic illustration of the power of situations to shape individuals' behavior. Zimbardo argued that the Guards acted the way they did because they conformed blindly to their assigned role, as did he in his position as Prison Superintendent. It became so out of hand that the study had to be shut down only six days in. The results were horrifying. Men were treating other men without respect just because of the role they were playing. Without realizing they became violent, brutal, and sadistic even and it all had to do with the environment they were placed in.

Together, historical evidence and classic psychological studies tell a very powerful story. Decent people can take on oppressive roles and succumb to oppressive leaders and the powerful nature of authority, the labels we ascribe to those in positions of authority, and on the other side how one's autonomy can be diminished in studies. The findings from the Milgram experiment were radical in that it demonstrated that people, of seemingly ordinary social positions and psychological well-being, could be manipulated into administering potentially lethal shocks to other individuals simply because they were told to do so. The interesting factor is that the one telling them to continue as a perceived scientist, in a lab coat, with a perceived abundance of knowledge. This has been widely used to demonstrate that those under orders say military personnel, can conduct a wide array of activities that would be normally outside of their moral boundaries.

These studies were used to explain many real-life events, where individuals’ behaviors were being dictated by the situation or where people committed terrible acts against their beliefs because they were instructed to. The Milgram experiment explains how normal German citizens willingly obeyed orders to injure and kill innocent people during World War II. Because the real-life Ghraib prison in Iraq is so closely related to the Stanford prison, it is remembered as the site of horrible abuses of power. The soldiers at Abu Ghraib, like the students in the Stanford prison experiment, were probably normal people who were caught up in overwhelming situations where being part of the group influenced their actions in extreme ways.

In order to address these questions, psychologists reasoned that it made sense to conduct a prison study like Zimbardo’s, because his study had produced powerful evidence of oppressive behavior. In Zimbardo’s experiment, many young men were tortured and abused physically and mentally. It cost them their humanity and for some, their insanity. The results answered Zimbardo’s questions but traumatized so many young men for the rest of their lives and left even more feeling guilty about how they behaved. What we’ve learned from these experiments does not outweigh the cost to participants. The answers to these types of questions could have been solved by creating a more positive and safe experiment. After these experiments, laws were established to keep research fair, safe, and voluntary. However, at the time there were no rules or laws to abide by so these experiments could not have been considered unethical. If this experiment were to be redone now, it would definitely have to make a few changes to keep it from being unethical. Simply telling the guards that they could not hit or physically abuse the prisoners would make the experiments more ethical. Although disturbing and psychotic, the Milgram experiment, changed how people viewed the power of authority and went on to find ways to reduce obedience. However, Milgram still should have informed the participants about what the experiment was really for and that no one was made to get hurt.

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Notorious Experiments in Psychology: Milgram Experiment. (2023, April 21). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 8, 2023, from
“Notorious Experiments in Psychology: Milgram Experiment.” Edubirdie, 21 Apr. 2023,
Notorious Experiments in Psychology: Milgram Experiment. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 8 Dec. 2023].
Notorious Experiments in Psychology: Milgram Experiment [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Apr 21 [cited 2023 Dec 8]. Available from:
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