Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority “Relationship” Condition: Some Methodological and Theoretical Implications
“...after receiving an order...from a superior officer, to shoot your own parents, would you do so?” Averting his eyes from the other defendants...Seibert responded, “Mr. President, I would not do so...” In one sentence Seibert...had destroyed the defense’s case.(, pp. 336–37)
2. Origins and Procedural Overview of the RC
When the subjects arrived, they did an actual drawing to determine who would be teacher and who would be learner. The learner was then taken in[to] the next room. The experimenter then conspicuously put him in the electric chair, and his friend looked on as instructions were given in the regular manner. 5
Milgram unstrapped the learner, and stayed with him coaching him how to yell, using very closely, the [m]odel of McDonough’s [the usual learner] yelling…The purpose of the experiment was to see if the relationship of the teacher to the learner would be important in obedience and defiance [italics added]. 6
3. Milgram’s Failure to Publish the RC
I observed a mature and initially poised businessman enter the laboratory smiling and confident. Within 20 minutes he was reduced to a twitching, stuttering wreck, who was rapidly approaching a point of nervous collapse.(, p. 377)
The father tried to conjure up a polite and non-confrontational means of ending the experiment:Participant: “Wrong, I’m gonna give you 165 volts.”Learner: “Ahhh, let me out of here…I’m gonna rip this place up! Let me out...”
Now listen…he’ll do that too...you better let him out because he’ll do it!...we’ll give you back your cheques and let it go at that, to hell with it. Because I’m not gonna have him get hurt, and he’ll rip your equipment up.
Participant: “I don’t give a god dang what “the experiment requires”. If someone’s getting hurt and hollering there is no such thing as anyone gonna make continue with [sic] so don’t give me that line of hooley if if [sic] you’re getting an experiment, and it’s hurting ya [mumble] that’s gonna make you continue with it—so don’t give me that line of hooley. I’m not so dumb that I don’t know that. and as I say, you can have your two damn cheques back! IF he’s gonna holler like that I’m not gonna keep going through with it!”Experimenter: “You have no other choice teacher.”Participant: “what do ya mean I have no other choice?”Experimenter: “If you don’t continue we’re going to have to discontinue the entire experiment.”Participant: (suddenly calming down) “...discontinue the entire thing? I an’t gonna have my boy—would you have your boy hollering in there like that?”Experimenter: “Well, we’ll have to discontinue, may I ask you a few questions...?”Participant: “I’m not going to sit there, after all that’s my boy, and I’m not gonna sit [mumbles].”
…the main purpose of the experiment was to see how you would react to taking orders. He wasn’t really getting the shock, we just set this up this way to see...whether you would be happy to give him the shocks or whether you weren’t so happy about it...So ahh ahh let’s tell him that ahhhh you knew you weren’t giving him the shocks...alright?
In my judgment, at no point were subjects exposed to danger and at no point did they run the risk of injurious effects resulting from participation. If it had been otherwise, the experiment would have been terminated at once.(, p. 849)
4. Methodological Implications of the RC
4.1. Orne and Holland’s Critique of the OTA Experiments
4.2. Mixon’s Critique of the OTA Experiments
The extreme emotional reactions of many of the participants are due not to the certain knowledge that they are inflicting serious harm, but to the fact that they cannot be certain. The evidence of their senses tells them they are, but background expectations and the expert responsible for the well-being of participants tells them they are not.(, p. 94)
4.3. Support for Mixon’s View
Milgram: “Is there anything...[your friend] could have said that would have gotten you to stop the experiment?”Carl: “I don’t think so.”Milgram: “Um, what if we...gave you...a gun and said ‘shoot him in the head’…?”
Carl: “Seriously...if they gave me a gun to shoot him in the head I wouldn’t have done it. I think my reasoning behind it...was this thing is set-up...But the way I figured it, you’re not going to cause yourselves trouble by actually giving serious physical damage to a body.”Milgram: “Um, do you think that would have been the point where you would have not done it, if there were any kind of physical damage?”Carl: “Yeah, if it was open to my senses, as you say, if...a gun [mumble] I wouldn’t [mumble]. No matter what anyone told me concerning say phony bullets or anything like that.”
4.4. Problems with Mixon’s View
Teacher: “I don’t believe this! I mean, go ahead.”Experimenter: “You don’t believe what?”...Teacher “I don’t believe you were giving him the shock.”Experimenter: “Then why, why won’t you continue?”Teacher: “Well I, I just don’t want to take a chance, I mean I, I”Experimenter: “Well if you don’t believe that he’s getting the shocks, why don’t you just continue with the test and we’ll finish it?”Teacher: “Well I, I can’t, because I can’t take that chance.” 
When you’re in that situation, wondering, should I continue or should I not, there are reasons to do both. What you do have is an expert in the room who knows all about this study, and presumably has been through this many times before with many participants, and he’s telling you, [t]here’s nothing wrong. The reasonable, rational thing to do is to listen to the guy who’s the expert when you’re not sure what to do.(, p. 359)
5. Theoretical Implications of the RC
Participant: But since he was my brother-in-law I stopped…Milgram: Why do you think you stopped for a brother-in-law?Participant: Well ahrrr…Why should I keep on going? It’s not that necessary to keep on going right? That’s the reason why I stopped. So what would this participant have done had the learner been a stranger?Participant: Well...they told me I should keep on going, I keep on going.Milgram: Why? What’s the difference?Participant: Well...[inaudible]...is not dangerous, nothing will happen to me.Milgram: But that’s what you were told...with your brother-in-law.Participant: Yeah, but there’s a difference.Milgram: What’s the difference?Participant: If it is a stranger I don’t listen. Right? We are doing an experiment…They told me to do it, I keep on doing it. He told me keep on going, I keep on going.(, pp. 501–02)
Milgram: “Did he [the experimenter] tell you about the strangers...?”Participant: “Yeah.”Milgram: “And in that situation a lot of people will go right up till the end. [Be]cause they don’t know the person and they don’t give a damn.”
…most revealing...in the Milgram experiment is not the inability of his subjects to understand the difference between right and wrong—anxiety was often the most visible emotion—but their failure to care about the difference in a way that would have made it the controlling factor in their behavior.(, pp. 424–25)
Russell and Gregory’s Theory
When it was over and Carl had reached 450 volts, he was seething. Williams told him that he wanted to ask some questions, and gave him a piece of paper on which to record his answers. Carl snarled, “It’s what I figured, some fuckin’ idiot tests!’...Carl was truculent and abrupt in answering questions...giving monosyllabic, curt replies, as if he could barely contain his anger. When the questions were over, Carl said, ‘All I can say is, as a researcher, has anybody ever physically attacked you?...’ Williams: Once or twice…he was not really being shocked out there. Carl: He just put an act on? Williams: Yeah, he’s a good actor”.(, p. 197)
Conflicts of Interest
References and Notes
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- 1As outlined in the Guide to the Stanley Milgram Papers: Manuscript Group Number 1406, the SMP covers the period 1927–1986. The archive is arranged in five series: General Files (1954–1985); Studies (1927–1984); Writings (1954–1993); Teaching Files (1960–1984); Data Files (1960–1984). The five series contain information on Milgram’s research into OTA, television violence, urban psychology, and communication patterns within society. The archive consists of both textual and non-textual materials (drawings, pictures, and a few boxes of audio tapes).
- 2For nearly two months in 2006 and two weeks in 2011, I perused nearly all of the materials relating to the OTA experiments, including Box 1 (folders a–f); 1a (folders 1–15); Box 13 (folders 181–194); Box 17 (folders 243–257); Box 21 (folders 326–339); Box 43 (folders 124–129); Box 44; Box 45 (folders 130–162); Box 46 (folders 163–178); Box 47 (folders 179–187); Box 48 (folders 188–203); Box 55 (folders 1–22); Box 56 (folders 23–46); Box 59 (73–87); Box 61 (folders 106–125); Box 152; Box 153 (audio tapes); Box 154; Box 155 (audio tapes); Box 156; Box 15.
- 3SMP, Box 46, Folder 163, Titled: “Obedience Notebook 1961–1970”.
- 4SMP, Box 46, Folder 163, Titled: “Obedience Notebook 1961–1970”.
- 5SMP, Box 46, Folder 163, Titled: “Obedience Notebook 1961–1970”.
- 6SMP, Box 46, Folder 163, Titled: “Obedience Notebook 1961–1970”.
- 7SMP, Box 153, Audiotape #2438.
- 8Across the entire Proximity Series the learner never mentioned having a heart condition. This series of experiments was run in a different laboratory to the majority of the other variations. In Conditions 2 to 4 the learner reacted verbally to every shock (15 to 450-volts) so was obviously never rendered silent. When running this set of experiments, Milgram was still honing his basic experimental procedure and therefore the Proximity Series was technically an extension of his pilot studies. It was not until Milgram ran the New Baseline that the basic experimental procedure was standardised (, p. 74).
- 9SMP, Box 17, Folder 246, Titled: “Drawings 1949–1968, no date”.
- 10See SMP, Box 153, Audiotape #2422, #2428, #2435, respectively.
- 11See SMP, Box 153, Audiotape #2440.
- 12SMP, Box 153, Audiotape #2435.
- 13SMP, Box 153, Audiotape #2435.
- 14SMP, Box 153, Audiotape #2435.
- 15SMP, Box 153, Audiotape #2429.
- 16Another explanation as to why Milgram never published the RC was that its results contradicted the theory presented in his 1974 book. There could be some validity to this explanation, except the disappearance of the RC occurred soon after the publication of Baumrind’s article , which seems like too great of a coincidence. Then again, Perry encountered “an unpublished fragment” on the RC “possibly written as an early draft for his book” (, p. 194).
- 17More specifically, the experimenter asked participants during the post-experimental debrief: “What is the maximum sample shock you would be willing to accept?” (, p. 57). Twelve of the 19 obedient participants agreed to experience a sample shock of between 30 and 195-volts. Seven agreed to experience a shock of between 240 and 420-volts.
- 18If most participants had not been deceived, why during the experiments did so many try to sabotage a study ostensibly exploring the effects of punishment on learning by covertly emphasising the correct answers to the learner’s multi-choice questions (see, for example, , pp. 159–60; , p. 124)?
- 20To bolster this explanation Mixon (, p. 95) pointed out that in Milgram’s three least ambiguous experiments , where it was explicitly made clear that the learner would definitely be hurt if every “shock” was inflicted, all participants disobeyed (Learner Demands to be Shocked Condition, Authority as Victim Condition and Two Authorities: Contradictory Commands Condition). Conversely, the more ambiguous Milgram’s variations, the higher the completion rates (, pp. 92–94). Finally, removing any ambiguity surrounding the learner’s fate, Mixon undertook a role-play replication where the experimenter informed participants that “The learner’s health is irrelevant…continue as directed” (, p. 164). Consequently, predicted completions slumped. Before starting this series of experiments participants were informed that the learner was an actor, the shocks were inauthentic, and they were to pretend that the experiment was real. The participants were then provided with slight variations of Milgram’s Remote Condition up until the 300-volt switch was inflicted. Participants were then to imagine and describe the succeeding events. By manipulating this description, Mixon obtained wide variations in predicted completion rates.
- 21SMP, Box 153, Audiotape #2430.
- 22SMP, Box 153, Audiotape #2430.
- 23Although Milgram conceded that the shock generator was “important” and that “If our subjects had to strike the victim with their fists, they would be more reluctant to do so” (, p. 157), he also stated near the beginning of his book that “The precise mode of acting against the victim is not of central importance” (, p. 14; see also , p. 334).
- 24There is even evidence indicating that when Milgram was inventing the basic experimental procedure, he set out to purposefully confuse participants about the effects of the “shocks” on the learner. That is, before the official experimental programme, Milgram ran a variety of pilot studies. Before the first pilot, Milgram decided to change the designated title of the last switch on his shock machine from “LETHAL” to the more ambiguous “XXX”, presumably because the latter was more likely to generate in the first official trial what he desired and termed the “strongest obedience situation” (, p. 149).
- 25SMP, Box 153, Audiotape #2439.
- 26SMP, Box 44, Divider (no label), #1106. Of note is that these resolutions to the basic procedure’s inherent dilemma do not lend weight to what Milgram believed was of utmost methodological importance. For example, both participants strongly suspected that the learner was not being harmed, but they nonetheless still believed it was important to stop the experiment. So in conflict with Milgram, was it really “critical” that most participants were convinced they were hurting the learner?
- 27SMP, Box 153, Audiotape #2428.
- 28As François Rochat concluded, “Both obedient and disobedient subjects had a hard time inflicting pain on their fellow participants. It was obvious they were all looking for a way to get out of the experiments” (, p. 380).
- 29As one participant later admitted: “I was surprised to learn that I did a thing even though I knew it was wrong to do it [italics added]” (SMP, Box 44, Divider: “Problems”, #2321).
- 30Miller, Collins and Brief have added that concerns about “being ‘impolite’ to a brutal researcher…would seem absurd. However, in the actual context of the situation, these concerns are influential” (, p. 9).
- 31It could be argued that the reason, as Mixon noted, the least ambiguous OTA variations tended to obtain the lowest completion rates was because many participants were cognisant that they would appear to others present as most responsible for harming the learner. That is, many participants in these variations were aware that completing and then later trying to argue that they were not most responsible for completing the experiment was unlikely to sound very convincing to others. And conversely, the reason the most ambiguous OTA variations tended to obtain the highest completion rates was probably because many participants were cognisant that they would not appear to others present as the most responsible for harming the learner. That is, many participants in these variations were aware that completing and then later trying to argue that they were not most responsible for completing the experiment was likely to be believed.
- 32SMP, Box 153, Audiotape #2430.
- 33Disobedient participants could and did feel quite differently, as one later said: “I was glad to find that I had the ‘guts’ to refuse to continue” (SMP, Box 44, Divider “14”, #0837).
- 34As one participant later stated: “It’s left me with a guilty feeling” (SMP, Box 44, Divider “9”, #2013).
- 35When the decision to increase the shock-intensity was left up to the participants, as it was in the Subject Chooses Shock Level Condition, only 2.5 percent inflicted the highest shock intensity of 450 volts. The vast majority of participants repeatedly chose to inflict low-intensity shocks (, pp. 70–72).
- 36Milgram and his research team’s dilemma to participate in the OTA research also had a moral dimension because, for example, without any medical screening, there was a possibility that the highly stressed situation could have stimulated a heart attack among participants. As one participant put it: “Since I became so upset during the experiment, I’m not sure that you were entirely responsible in picking your subjects. Suppose I’d had a heart condition?” (SMP, Box 44, Divider “12”, #2032; see also , pp. 116–17; , pp. 103–04).
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Russell, N. Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority “Relationship” Condition: Some Methodological and Theoretical Implications. Soc. Sci. 2014, 3, 194-214. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci3020194
Russell N. Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority “Relationship” Condition: Some Methodological and Theoretical Implications. Social Sciences. 2014; 3(2):194-214. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci3020194Chicago/Turabian Style
Russell, Nestar. 2014. "Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority “Relationship” Condition: Some Methodological and Theoretical Implications" Social Sciences 3, no. 2: 194-214. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci3020194