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Obedience can be said to be at the most extreme end of influence, it is obeying an order; and has particular relevance in society with many soldiers claiming they were "obeying orders" to commit war crimes, for instance.

Study: Stanley Milgram 1963

This study by Milgram is extremely famous and has been repeated numerous times across the world.

AimTo find out if Americans would obey an unjust order to inflict pain on someone else.
Method40 male participants were selected after replying to a newspaper ad.
At the start of the experiment they met a man called Mr Wallis, a mild-mannered man in his fifties; who was then hooked up to a charge generator. He was in fact a confederate.

The participant sat in another room and tested 'Mr Wallis' on word pairs, when he got one wrong, the participant was to give him an electric shock. These increased as more incorrect answers were given from 15 to 450 volts.

Each time a shock was given a pre-recorded sound played indicating Mr Wallis in varying degrees of pain, until after 315 volts there was an eerie silence. Another confederate called 'Mr Williams', wearing a lab coat encouraged the participant to continue (this was the authority figure).
ResultsAll went up to at least 300 volts. 65% went up to 450.
ConclusionUnder certain circumstances, most people will obey orders.


There are alot of evaluation points on this research, many of which can be applied to other pieces of research into obedience; if you are here looking for help with an essay on this. They can be catorgarised as either ethical or methodological (how the experiment was carried out).


  • Deception. In the Milgram experiment the participants were lead to believe it was a study into memory.
  • Harm. Those who continued to the end (most of them) may have thought they had killed Mr Wallis.
  • Right to withdraw. Because it was an experiment into Obedience, the participants may have thought they couldn't leave since Mr Williams prevented them if they tried.
  • Methodological

  • Limited sample Only men and people from one town were used. There were age restrictions on who could apply; the sample was self-selected (i.e people chose themselves and this is only a certain personality type).
  • Ecological Validity poor Giving electric shocks is not an everday-task, or indeed a task that someone would ever have done before.
  • Experimental realism. The participants may not have believed the experiment was real, so they are more likely to carry on as they don't think they're really harming someone.
  • Demand characteristics. Since they are aware of being in an experiment, the behaviour of the participants may be altered.
  • Defiance

    Defiance is going against or disobeying an order from an authority figure.

    Factors which affect defiance and levels of obedience were investigated by Milgram in variations of his original experiment. All examples below refer to his variations and the numbers compare with 65% in the original. Teacher refers to participant and learner 'Mr Wallis'

    Proximity to authority / victim
    The closer one is to the authority or the victim of the authority, the less obedience there is. Teacher and learner in the same room: 40%. Teacher has assistant to press switch: 92.5%.

    Defiance is more likely when you have a supporter. Teacher has support from 2 others: 30%.

    Status of location
    An important location increases obedience. The original Milgram experiment was carried out at Yale University, in a variation at a run-down office obedience was 42.5%.

    If wearing a uniform (visible sign of authority) obedience increases. Milgram did not directly investigate this, but evidence can be found in the study by Bickman (see below).

    Other Studies

    It is worthwhile at least learning the outcome of the following so you can refer to them as support (or the reverse) in a piece of written work.

    StudyBickman (1974) New YorkHofling (1966) Nurses
    AimTo see if uniform influences authority and obedience. Would nurses obey an oder that breaches hospital rules.
    MethodThree researchers were dressed as either: a civilian (coat and tie); milkman, or guard.

    People were approached on the street and were asked one of three things. Here is an example of one: "Pick up this bag for me [points to bag]"
    An unsuspecting nurse was told to give a patient a drug for a 'doctor' before he arrived.

    The instruction broke many hospital guidelines including acting without a signed order from a doctor.

    The nurse was stopped before giving the medication and as an extra precaution it was harmless anyway.
    ResultsMuch more obedience with the guard21 out 22 nurses obeyed until they were stopped.
    ConclusionVisible symbols of authority increase obedience.Heirarchies such as those in hospitals put pressure on us to obey.
    EvaluationSupports the findings of Milgram (relating to status)

    Has good ecological validity as it is in a real-life setting.

    Questionable how representative the sample is since it only tests those who happened to be on this street at the time.
    The nurses did not give consent to take part in this study.

    It contradicts Milgram's findings as it shows very high conformity when an order is given over the telephone.

    A very small sample was used.