Milgram's Obedience to Authority experiments: origins and early evolution

Br J Soc Psychol. 2011 Mar;50(Pt 1):140-62. doi: 10.1348/014466610X492205.


Stanley Milgram's Obedience to Authority experiments remain one of the most inspired contributions in the field of social psychology. Although Milgram undertook more than 20 experimental variations, his most (in)famous result was the first official trial run - the remote condition and its 65% completion rate. Drawing on many unpublished documents from Milgram's personal archive at Yale University, this article traces the historical origins and early evolution of the obedience experiments. Part 1 presents the previous experiences that led to Milgram's conception of his rudimentary research idea and then details the role of his intuition in its refinement. Part 2 traces the conversion of Milgram's evolving idea into a reality, paying particular attention to his application of the exploratory method of discovery during several pilot studies. Both parts illuminate Milgram's ad hoc introduction of various manipulative techniques and subtle tension-resolving refinements. The procedural adjustments continued until Milgram was confident that the first official experiment would produce a high completion rate, a result contrary to expectations of people's behaviour. Showing how Milgram conceived of, then arrived at, this first official result is important because the insights gained may help others to determine theoretically why so many participants completed this experiment.

Publication types

  • Biography
  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Authoritarianism*
  • Cooperative Behavior*
  • Dominance-Subordination*
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Power, Psychological*
  • Psychological Theory*
  • Psychology, Social / history*
  • Punishment / history*
  • Research / history*
  • United States

Personal name as subject

  • Stanley Milgram