In Repeat of Milgram's Electric Shock Experiment, People Still Pull the Lever

By Nina Bai | December 19, 2008 4:04 pm

milgramIn a new study, most people willingly pulled a lever to deliver pain to others when instructed to do so, showing that little has changed in the near half-century since psychologist Stanley Milgram’s famous electric shock experiment. Milgram’s experiment revealed our propensity to do harm when encouraged by authority, a topic of great interest in the post-World War II years. A new iteration of the experiment (with added precautions) revealed that seven out of ten people will give painful electric shocks to another person as part of what they are told is a scientific investigation. “What we found is validation of the same argument—if you put people into certain situations, they will act in surprising, and maybe often even disturbing, ways,” [Reuters] says researcher Jerry Burger.

In the 1961 experiment, Yale University professor Milgram asked volunteers to deliver increasingly strong electric “shocks” to other people, who appeared to be test subjects but were really actors, if they answered certain questions incorrectly. Milgram found that, after hearing an actor cry out in pain at 150 volts, 82.5 percent of participants continued administering shocks, most to the maximum 450 volts [Reuters]. The results, now a fixture in psychology textbooks, suggested that people’s moral attitudes can be suppressed when they’re put in a situation of obedience. Although no actual shocks were delivered and the sounds of agony came from a tape-recording, many of the volunteers suffered stress from the task and replication of the experiments was deemed unethical.

In the new study, to be published in American Psychologist, Burger replicated the gist of the original experiment but included measures to minimize the psychological stress on the test subjects, such as limiting the shocks to 150 volts and not letting them administer any further shocks even if they indicated their willingness. The new participants were reminded repeatedly that they could stop at any time, while in Milgram’s version, participants were told, “The experiment requires that you go on,” if they expressed hesitation. Again, however, the vast majority of the 29 men and 41 women taking part were willing to push the button knowing it would cause pain to another human. Even when another actor entered the room and questioned what was happening, most were still prepared to continue [BBC News]. About 70 percent continued the shocks up to 150 volts and were willing to go even higher. “That was surprising and disappointing,” Burger said [Reuters].

Burger believes his study demonstrates not only the power of blind obedience, but also that certain situations normalize immoral behavior. In this case, the gradual incremental nature of the task—administering slightly more painful shocks each time—may have eased the shift from normal behavior, he suggests. Burger cautions against any leap of judgment from laboratory studies to complex social behavior, but the findings do shed some light on the factors that contribute to genocide and torture. Says Burger: “People learning about Milgram’s work often wonder whether results would be any different today…Many point to the lessons of the Holocaust and argue that there is greater societal awareness of the dangers of blind obedience. But what I found is the same situational factors that affected obedience in Milgram’s experiments still operate today” [Telegraph].

Related Content:
DISCOVER: The Dark Side of Reality TV compares Survivor to Milgram’s experiments
DISCOVER: Why Do People Behave Nicely? argues for studying altruism, not cruelty

Image: flickr / we-make-money-not-art

MORE ABOUT: decisions, emotions
  • George

    “The new participants were reminded repeatedly that they could stop at any time…”

    Which makes these results so much more appalling. “Baaa!” Apparently, we are sheep with no sense of responsibility or accountability. How sad.

  • Don Homuth

    It’s one thing to do this in an experiment, It’s quite another when someone actually in power does this in the real world — and that would include places like Viet Nam and Iraq.

    The original Milgram experiment taught the power that be that normal people would act inhumanely, if the circumstances were right. So they learned how to make the circumstances right, Sure enough — people acted inhumanely,

    What doesn’t happen is that someone teaches the folks — like young soldiers, for example — how to see through what they are being told to do.

    When do we get to see the result of That experiment?

  • William

    Are the public thick well not all of them, they know it is a trick so what the hell the “victim” volunteered. What if, what not, so what.

  • Bill

    Wrong Don: sodiers are taught right from wrong…they do their job. Of course, like in any HUGE business, there are misfits and criminals. Our troops are not running around in Iraq wantonly killing anything that moves. How do I know? I did my time there…
    What are your qualifications to state “facts” such as “…doesn’t happen…someone teaches…to see through what they are being told to do”.
    Please don’t state your time (if you served) in a US base for 3 years with the Army. If you wren’t trained for combat, don’t comment on the training, or supposed lack of it.

  • john wickenden

    Interesting to hear about this repeat but most interesting to me was my annoyance at:
    “Burger replicated the gist of the original experiment but included measures to minimize the psychological stress on the test subjects”
    Every time there is some sort of disaster the first priority seems to be that scores of PTSD councillors are on hand.
    Seems to me to be a fine way of telling people when they should actually be feeling ill. Sort of a reverse placebo effect.
    Is this over nannying itself becoming unhealthy?
    I think I’ll do a study :-)

  • john wickenden

    To add to my post above……can anyone tell me whether Americans, the young variety anyway, weeping at the least opportunity (if you haven’t noticed it you live there) is mutually learned behaviour or is there another cause?
    cheers John

  • laurelei25

    Why aren’t they doing psychological studies of the 30% that wouldn’t shock their fellow human beings. Seems it would be useful to know what makes us more humane…

  • TRJ

    Across medicine the standard for human experimentation is informed consent. Psychology should be no different. Any experiment in which a person is lied to, deceived or not told the complete truth, is unethical. If a psychologist cannot devise an experiment to test something, whatever that something is, in which the participant is told the complete truth, then he or she should not perform the experiment and pursue either a different approach, or a different subject of study.

  • Larian LeQuella

    I wonder, did they ask the participants about their level of religiosity? I bet there could be a surprising correlation there. Just saying, sheeple would be more willing to blindly follow orders. I believe it was Voltaire that said, “If we believe absurdities, we will commit atrocities.”

    I am also surprised they could find that many participants who were not aware of the experiment itself!

  • John J. Simmins


    I agree, determining the level of religiosity (as you call it) would be interesting. As a Catholic, I was taught by my church that EVERY human being has inalienable human dignity from the moment of conception until a natural death. This dignity does not depend on the person’s ability to perform certain tasks, their race, religion or sexual orientation. This inherent dignity is to be given to saints and sinners, patriots and terrorists, victims and perpetrators. It is non-negotiable.

    As a Catholic, I was taught that it is NEVER morally permissible to perform an evil act to achieve a moral good.

    As a Catholic, I was taught that the God of the universe humbled himself to come and die for me, personally and I must follow that God regardless of the consequences.

  • Jumblepudding

    Perhaps this has to do with human intuition(some people may have realized on some level that the whole thing was fake) or lack of knowledge (how much is 450 volts? Is that what you get when you lick a battery?) Oh, what am I making excuses for? People are tools. congrats to the minority who walked out, although you would have been killed or imprisoned in Nazi germany.

  • modernrocko

    TRJ: Psychological tests are very different than the types of tests and experimentation you’re talking about. People act differently if they know something is not actually happening. My wording there is a little confusing, so I’ll provide an example.

    Let’s say Burger runs this test again, with a different group of people. In this new group he tells them all exactly what he’s doing, that he’s replicating a study of Milgram’s, and he tells them all about the experiment itself as well as the original results. Then, he tells them that the machine in front of them is not actually used for electric shocks, and that when they pull the levers, the yells and screams are recordings and not actually people in another room.

    If he tells the subjects all of this information, they will act absolutely differently than if they actually believed there was another human being getting shocked by their actions. At the point when they know the entire scenario is a fake, the results of the “experiment” are useless and meaningless. The entire point of the situation is to make the subject think they are actually inflicting pain on another human being by pulling these levers, because the point of the experiment is to gauge just how far the test takers will take the experiment and when they will decide to stop pulling the levers.

    Psychological tests would no longer serve any purpose if the test takers knew exactly what was going on. This is no different than blind and double-blind comparison tests of two different products.. like bottled water vs tap water, for instance. If you fill one glass with tap water and another with bottled water, tell someone which type of water is in each glass and ask them to taste both, the majority of people will say the bottled water tastes better. But you will get very different results if you do not tell them which is which. Some will say they taste the same, others will say the tap water tastes better, etc.

    Most of the time, truth pollutes results in tests like this.. so what do you propose they do? Cease testing entirely because the experimenters can’t be 100% honest all the time?

  • Neuroskeptic

    TRJ: In the original experiments, almost all the participants said they were very glad or glad to have taken part, in retrospect. Lots of them said it was life changing (in a good way). one guy said he decided to avoid going to Vietnam because of what he learned by taking part (it was the 1960s remember).

    More little-known facts in this post

  • Thomas Leung

    “Burger replicated the gist of the original experiment but included measures to minimize the psychological stress on the test subjects”

    It’s a really bad idea to shock people with experiments that predicts hurt to the subjects, no matter the way to minimize it ! If there needs some measure to minimize the stress, it means there are still stress within the subjects.

    The subjects were asked to shock other people in the name of “instruction”.
    How about Burger, himself, do the “same” shock to the subjects in the name of “academic research” !!

    If we respect human rights, we respect well-beings of others. There is no reason we could use to make other people being hurt physically or psychologically in a lab in the name of academic or whatever. There is a built-in problem of this so-called psychological experiment !

  • Mike

    It’s funny, I have a teacher who does this. She takes “Silent Prep” Time to extreme measures because it’s a rule. No noise, none. No looking at other students, no entertaining others conversation by even appearing to listen. She always apologizes for it and blames it on the rules and her higher up’s decision to ‘make’ her do so.

    I’m going to ask her to look up Milgram’s experiment and see if she notices the parallel as well! Hopefully the disciplinarian will switch me out of there after that.

  • brünnhilde

    I wonder what would happen if the experiments were told that after quitting they are to change roles. Would a Teacher stop on lower level if he/she knew that next turn is going to be Learner?

  • esmeralda

    What Milgram did to these people sounds mean and unethical, I sort of lived the situation at college another day, just by watching the experiment made me sick. To be honest I was very disturbed that people, especially women are able of such evil doing. I know there is a bit of truth about women having that bit of evil sie in them, but I didn’t know whwther that was meant literally or figuratively.

  • psychoterapeuta warszawa

    I must get across my affection for your kind-heartedness for all those that must have assistance with the area of interest. Your personal dedication to getting the message throughout came to be really effective and has without exception allowed employees much like me to arrive at their goals. Your entire important useful information indicates this much to me and even more to my colleagues. Thanks a ton; from each one of us.

  • jeremiah

    I found this whole experiment to be sick and twisted

  • j

    yeah, yeah. this is the yin yang all over. all humans have the potential for both the very worst and the very best. what the nazis did, everyone would do if they needed to. we can all kill and hunt, we’re not far removed from the caves when that meant survival and success.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar