Stanley Milgram started conducting the first of his famous 'obedience' studies on August 7th, 1961. In these, well-adjusted men were given the role of 'teacher' in a bogus memory experiment and asked to deliver electric shocks of increasing magnitude to another person who posed as ‘learner’.  Supposedly, this would help the experimenter understand the effects of punishment on learning. In the standard or 'baseline' experiment, every single ‘teacher’ was prepared to administer ‘intense shocks’ of 300 volts, and 65% delivered shocks apparently in excess of 450 volts (beyond a point labeled “Danger Severe Shock”).

Interest in this research has been reinvigorated in recent years, in part as a result of insights gained from the BBC Prison Study. In particular, in a recent paper in the British Journal of Social Psychology (downloadable here), we  argued that just as identification with the experimenter, Zimbardo, and his scientific project underpinned Guards' brutality in the Stanford Prison Experiment (discussed here), so identification with the experimenter and his scientific project in Milgram's studies seems likely to have played a role in participants' willingness to administer shocks to the learner. 

On the basis of these arguments, in several other recently published papers — one in Perspectives on Psychological Science (PPS), one in PLoS Biology — we contend that Milgram's studies are actually more about leadership and followership than about obedience. Consistent with this reconceptualization, in both the SPE and the Milgram studies, it appears that rather than obey direct orders, participants were instead "working towards the experimenter" — trying to do what they thought was right with reference to a shared social identity. 

In support of our argument, we show in the PPS paper that variation in willingness to administer shocks across 15 variants of Milgram's paradigm is very well predicted by the relative weight of (a) participants' identification with the experimenter (and the scientific enterprise he represents) and (b) their identification with the learner (and the general community he represents). Details of the experimental procedure are avaliable here.

To commemorate the anniversary of Milgram's research, in 2012 we also co-edited a Special Issue of The Psychologist. This contains articles by us, Gerry Burger (who recently conducted a partial replication of Milgram's study in the US), the film scholar Kathryn Millard, the WWII historian Richard Overy, and Milgram's widow Alexandra. We have also recently published an article in Scientific American Mind that reviews recent thinking about Milgram's work.

Alex Haslam was interviewed about the obedience studies on BBC Radio 4's Material World on August 4. There was too little time and much, much more to say, but you can listen again here.  On August 18, The Guardian newspaper also published a 20-minute podcast that explored these issues in greater depth. This was followed up in January 2012 by another in-depth interview with RadioLab that also included fascinating material from the Milgram archive at Yale, and a 17-minute WNYC podcast can be accessed here.

Further reading:

  • Burger, J. (2009). Replicating Milgram: Would people still obey today? American Psychologist, 64, 1-11.
  • Haslam, S.A., & Reicher, S. D. (2012). Contesting the “nature” of conformity: What Milgram and Zimbardo's studies really show. PLoS Biology, 10(11): e1001426. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001426. (download)
  • Haslam, S. A., Reicher, S. D., & Sutton, J. (2011). The shock of the old: Reconnecting with Milgram’s obedience studies, 50 years on. Special Issue of The Psychologist, 24(9).
  • Haslam, S. A., & Reicher, S. D. (2007). Beyond the banality of evil: Three dynamics of an interactionist social psychology of tyranny. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 615-622. (download)
  • Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority: An experimental view. New York. NY: Harper & Row.
  • Reicher, S. D., & Haslam, S. A. (2011). After shock? Towards a social identity explanation of the Milgram ‘obedience’ studies. British Journal of Social Psychology, 50, 163-169. (download)
  • Reicher, S. D., & Haslam, S. A., (2011). Culture of shock: A fresh look at Milgram’s obedience studies. Scientific American Mind, 22(6), 30-35.
  • Reicher, S. D., & Haslam. S. A. (2012). Obedience: Revisiting Milgram’s obedience studies. In J. R. Smith & S. A. Haslam (Eds.). Social Psychology: Revisiting the classic studies (pp.106-125). London and Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Reicher, S. D., Haslam, S. A., & Smith, J. R. (2012). Working towards the experimenter: Reconceptualizing obedience within the Milgram paradigm as identification-based followership. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7, 315-324.