Significance of Milgram's Study of Obedience for Social Psychology

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Hogg and Vaughan (2017) have observed that “social psychology offers a special perspective on human behavior”. Undoubtedly, studies have shown that it is within human behavior to be influenced by the presence of others. Milgram’s ‘Behavioral Study of Obedience’ (1963), highlights in particular the impact of social roles on behavior, i.e., obedience.

Obedience can be defined as “the act or practice of obeying” (Collins English Dictionary, 2012). During World War II, it was estimated that around 6 million Jews were systematically killed by individuals who were obedient to the orders of Nazi Germany. Two years previous to this experiment, Nazi war criminal, Adolf Eichmann, was tried for his crimes and claimed he was simply ‘following orders’ (Collin et al., 2015).

Consequently, Milgram created his experiment to evaluate if this was a truthful confession or an empathy ploy, that he had no other choice. The experiment consisted of authority figures instructing participants to apply shocks of voltage to a learner when they answered a question incorrectly. The experiments stressed that individuals were compelled to follow orders by an authority figure, even if it was conflicting with their own morals. Milgram noted that several elements of the experiment could manipulate the results to cause an increased level of obedience such as being paid for participation may have influenced the participants to obey. However, various versions of the experiment were conducted, and each had remarkably similarly high obedience results. Furthermore, Milgram stated that “obedience to authority is not a feature of German culture, but a seemingly universal feature of human behavior” (Collin et al., 2015).

Milgram’s study emphasizes that behavior is influenced by the presence of others. Milgram chose middle aged men, professionals, and unskilled men. These ordinary men highlighted that human behavior is influenced irrespective of our personalities, but it depends on the situation we are placed in. The men experienced both physical and emotional repercussions to participating in the study, for example shaking and sweating highlighting their guilt and uneasiness in inflicting the pain.

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This study emphasizes that social psychology is not straight forward, and humans react different to authority figures and will be more willing to obey under certain conditions. For example, some humans are more reluctant to obey an authority figure if they believed there would be repercussions for themselves. One participant asked the examiner if he would be in trouble if anything serious happened to the learner. Once reassured that he would receive no responsibility, he continued.

Social psychology has shown us that the natural instinct to conform, comply and obey is overwhelmingly present. Ultimately, “legitimate power rests on authority and is best illustrated by the consideration of obedience” (Hogg and Vaughan, 2017). Furthermore, the presence of others subconsciously influences human behavior. In summary, Milgram noted that individuals are compelled to obey orders by authority figures, although some were more reluctant than others, as drastic 65% of participants reached the maximum voltage, it emphasizes the power of social psychology.

It should be noted that this experiment may not be an accurate representation of how the presence of others, influences the behavior of the majority population. The experiment consisted of 40 men, if the experiment had included women the results may have been different. Gina Perry, a social psychologist, is passionate in her belief that the participants were ‘bullied’ into completing the study, consequently the results may be skewed. But also, it is clear that this experiment has contributed to other social psychologists in their research into conformism. For example, in 1971 Zimbardo conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment, which similarly highlighted that seemingly good people can be influenced into committing acts that would generally be against their nature in the presence of others.

Milgram’s experiment has clearly made an infamous contribution to social psychology with it still being referenced and appreciated over 50 years later.

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Significance of Milgram’s Study of Obedience for Social Psychology. (2023, March 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 17, 2024, from
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