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Milgram experiment (Behavioral Study on obedience)

Contributor(s): Ivy Wigmore

The Milgram experiment is a famous psychological study exploring the willingness of individuals to follow the orders of authorities when those orders conflict with the individual’s own moral judgment. Psychologist Stanley Milgram began the obedience study at Yale in 1961, shortly after the start of the trial of Nazi war criminal Albert Eichmann. Milgram’s research was documented as “Behavioral Study on obedience” in 1963 in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology.

Although the researcher’s name will always be associated with the obedience study, Milgram is also known for research with less troubling implications, the small-world experiment. In 1967, the psychologist developed a model of distribution to demonstrate the six degrees of separation phenomenon, according to which any person on the planet can be connected to any other person on the planet through a chain of no more than five intermediaries.

The study 

Milgram said he developed his research to answer the question: "Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders?" In the experiment, subjects thought that they were administering electrical shocks to “learners” who failed to respond correctly. In reality, the learners were actually part of the research team.

The experiment's subjects were told they would be operating  a shock generator with gradations ranging from Slight Shock to Danger: Severe Shock. Despite the "learners" who acted as if they were experiencing clear signs of discomfort and distress, the majority of subjects continued to follow instructions to deliver shocks -- even the maximum shock, which could be fatal.

More recent examinations of Milgram’s research by Gina Perry indicate that only about half of the participants were fully convinced that they were delivering shocks and that 66 percent of those participants refused to comply. Nevertheless, even that level of compliance has troubling implications for human behavior under unethical authority.

Applications of the Milgram experiment in business

In business, implications of the study have relevance for a number of areas including human resource management. For example, candidates for positions of authority should be taught counter-measures to blind obedience. Such counter-measures include the encouragement of critical thinking supported by a degree of autonomy among employees.

The Milgram experiment is also relevant to software development and AI ethics. In the case of the latter, AI might, for example, be programmed with a code of conduct and with weighted priorities that would supersede any conflicting instructions.

This was last updated in July 2019

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