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date: 04 March 2021

Milgram’s Experiments on Obedience to Authoritylocked

  • Stephen GibsonStephen GibsonHeriot-Watt University, School of Social Sciences

Summary

Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience to authority are among the most influential and controversial social scientific studies ever conducted. They remain staples of introductory psychology courses and textbooks, yet their influence reaches far beyond psychology, with myriad other disciplines finding lessons in them. Indeed, the experiments have long since broken free of the confines of academia, occupying a place in popular culture that is unrivaled among psychological experiments. The present article begins with an overview of Milgram’s account of his experimental procedure and findings, before focussing on recent scholarship that has used materials from Milgram’s archive to challenge many of the long-held assumptions about the experiments. Three areas in which our understanding of the obedience experiments has undergone a radical shift in recent years are the subject of particular focus. First, work that has identified new ethical problems with Milgram’s studies is summarized. Second, hitherto unknown methodological variations in Milgram’s experimental procedures are considered. Third, the interactions that took place in the experimental sessions themselves are explored. This work has contributed to a shift in how we see the obedience experiments. Rather than viewing the experiments as demonstrations of people’s propensity to follow orders, it is now clear that people did not follow orders in Milgram’s experiments. The experimenter did a lot more than simply issue orders, and when he did, participants found it relatively straightforward to defy them. These arguments are discussed in relation to the definition of obedience that has typically been adopted in psychology, the need for further historical work on Milgram’s experiments, and the possibilities afforded by the development of a broader project of secondary qualitative analysis of laboratory interaction in psychology experiments.

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