Don’t blame Milgram

I’m motivated to write this post because of a new book that, according to an NPR interview with its author, attacks the late Stanley Milgram for having misled us about the human propensity to obey.  He overstated his case, she claims, and also conducted unethical research.

The Milgram obedience studies of the 1960’s are probably the most famous research in the history of social psychology.  As the reader almost certainly knows, subjects were ordered to give apparently harmful – perhaps even fatal – electric shocks to an innocent victim (who was, fortunately, an unharmed research assistant).  The studies found that a surprising number of ordinary people followed orders to the hilt .

Accounts of these studies in textbooks and in popular writings usually make one of two points, and often both.  (1)  Milgram showed that anybody, or almost anybody, would obey orders to harm an innocent victim if the orders came from someone in an apparent position of authority.  (2) Milgram showed that the “power of the situation” overwhelms the “power of the person”; the experimenter’s orders were so strong that they overwhelmed personal dispositions and individual differences.  Both of these points are, indeed, dead wrong.  But their promulgation is not Milgram’s fault.

Consider each point, and what Milgram said (or didn’t say) about them.

1. Anybody, or almost anybody, would obey orders to harm an innocent victim.

Why this is wrong.  Because empirically it is wrong.  Milgram ran many variations in on his basic procedure and, to his credit, reported the data in full in his 1974 book.  (Not all social psychologists are so forthcoming.)  Across 18 experimental conditions, compliance ranged from 93% (when the participant did not have to administer shocks personally) to 0% (when two authorities gave contradictory orders, when the experimenter was the victim, and when the victim demanded to be shocked). In the two most famous conditions, when the experimenter was present and the victim could be heard but not seen, the obedience rates were 63% (at Yale) and 48% (when the setting was ostensibly “Research Associates of Bridgeport”). Across all conditions the average rate of compliance was 37.5% (Milgram 1974, Tables 2, 3, 4 and 5).  It is certainly reasonable to argue that this rate is surprising, and high enough to be troubling.  But 40% is far from everybody, or almost everybody.  Disobedience, even in the Milgram study, was a common occurrence.

Why the mistake is not Milgram’s fault.  Perhaps Milgram said some things that made people overestimate the rate of obedience he showed; I don’t know and I haven’t gone back to his original writings to check.  However, I doubt that the recent criticism that he misleadingly made people think that “anybody could be a Nazi” is fair, for a couple of reasons.  One reason is that he very clearly laid out the data from all of his experimental conditions in his definitive book, which allowed the calculations that are summarized above (and taken from Krueger & Funder, 2004, footnote 1).  Milgram hid nothing.

The second reason I don’t blame Milgram is that I had the opportunity to see him in person, just once, in about 1980.  (He was giving a talk at the Claremont Graduate School when I was a new faculty member at Harvey Mudd College.)  Milgram noted that his own famous movie about his research – a black & white classic still shown in many introductory psychology classes – begins with a subject who disobeys the experimenter. Milgram said he did that on purpose.  He feared that the message of his research would be taken to be that disobedience is impossible.  He wanted to counter that at the outset, he said, by showing just how it’s done:  Keep saying no.

It’s a reality-film classic, from before the genre even existed.  You see the balding, middle-aged white guy subject, wearing an office-worker’s shirt with rolled-up sleeves, become increasingly disturbed as the victim’s complaints escalate.  When he resists continuing to administer shocks, the experimenter says “you have no other choice, teacher, you must continue.”  It is a truly thrilling cinematic moment when the subject crosses his arms, leans back, and replies, “oh, I have a lot of choice.”

2.  Milgram’s study shows that the power of the situation overwhelms the power of the person, personality, or individual differences.

Why this is wrong (a):  First, the statement is empirically wrong because of the data summarized above.  Years ago, Lee Ross (1977) wrote about the complications in separating out “situational” from “dispositional” (or personal) causation.  He pointed out that to say “he ate it because it was chocolate-coated” sounds like a situational cause, but is precisely equivalent to saying “he ate it because he can’t resist chocolate,” which sounds like a dispositional cause.  The way out of this dilemma, Ross pointed out – in a resolution that has been widely accepted ever since – is that situational causation can be attributed only when everybody or almost everybody in a situation does the same thing.  Dispositional causation is indicated when people differ in their responses to the same situation.  In other words, if a response is made by 0% or 100% of the people in a situation (or close to these numbers), then you can fairly say the situation was the cause.  As this number gets closer to 50%, you have to attribute some causal power to personal, individual differences.  Recall again the overall obedience number across all the conditions of the Milgram studies;  37.5%.  Even in the most famous, Yale/victim-in-the-next-room condition, the obedience rate of 63% is much closer to 50 than to 100.

Why this is wrong (b):  The claim that Milgram showed the situation is more powerful than dispositions was incoherent to begin with.  His study included not one, but two situational forces: (1) the experimenter saying “continue” and (2) the victim saying “stop.”  It also included two dispositional forces: (1) an individual’s disposition to obey and (2) the individual’s disposition to be compassionate, kind, and therefore disobedient.  In the (less than 100%) of cases where the subjects obey to the hilt, four explanations are therefore conceivable (see Funder & Fast, 2010):

  1. The situational force to obey was stronger than the situational force to be compassionate.
  2. The dispositional force to obey was stronger than the dispositional force to be compassionate.
  3. The situational force to obey was stronger than the dispositional force to be compassionate.
  4. The dispositional force to obey was stronger than the situational force to be compassionate.

Explanations (1) and (2) both make sense, and in fact – as Ross would have noted – are exactly equivalent in meaning (and equally disturbing).  Explanation 4 is heresy.  It would use the Milgram study as a demonstration of how dispositions overwhelm situations!  But explanation 3 is equivalently incoherent, and it is the conventional one found in almost every social psychology textbook.

Why the mistake is not Milgram’s fault.  Milgram himself noted the interindividual variation in his subject’s responses, and said that it was important to find out their basis, though he didn’t succeed in finding it (for that, see recent research by David Gallardo-Pujol and his colleagues, reference below).  His movie also includes a graphic representation of what was listed above as explanation (1).  He described the competing demands of the experimenter and the victim as “fields of force,” noting that his experimental manipulations showed that as you got closer to the experimenter you were more likely to respond to his demands to obey, and as you got closer to the victim, you were more likely to respond to his demands to break off.  (The picture below is from the title slide, but the diagram was used later in the film to illustrate competing pressures from two situational forces).


So don’t blame Milgram.  He was one of the most creative social psychologists in history, and his research program on obedience and other topics continues to be instructive (see Blass, 2004 for a fascinating personal history and summary of his work).


Gallardo-Pujol, D.; Orekhova, L.; & Benet-Martínez, V. (in preparation). Under Pressure to Obey and Conform: When the Power of the Situation is not enough. University of Barcelona

Ross, L. (1977). The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (vol. 10). New York: Academic Press.

Update 9/8/13

Some useful additional information concerning personality correlates of obedience, courtesy of Jonathan Cheek (thanks, Jon):

“Personality psychologists may appreciate the original study ELMS, A. C., & MILGRAM, S. (1966). PERSONALITY CHARACTERISTICS ASSOCIATED WITH OBEDIENCE AND DEFIANCE TOWARD AUTHORITATIVE COMMAND. Journal of Experimental Research in Personality, 1, 282-289, which is more accessibly summarized in Elms, A. C. (2009). Obedience lite. American Psychologist, 64, 32-36.”