The Killing Fields

Milgram's original Obedience to Authority Study found that 65% of the participants were willing to give 30 electric shocks to another person if they were told to do so by an authority figure. This study led to a an intense debate about the value of these findings. Did this study tell us anything important about human behaviour in real world situations where people are ordered to commit acts which cause other human beings harm?

Some psychologists argued that the situation was so unbelievable that the participants simply 'played the game' and went along with the psychologist conducting the experiment: it lacked internal validity.

Orne and Holland argued that the findings were not due to obedience to authority as Milgram claimed but due to the 'demand characteristics' of the situation they found themselves in, an experiment conducted in a lab. In short, Orne and Holland claim people behave very differently in psychological experiments than in real world social situations.


Orne and Holland also argued that Milgram's obedience to authority study lacks external validity. The results of the study only apply to the research situation, they do not apply to other situations, especially real world situations of obedience. It lacks ecological validity: we cannot generalise the findings of this study to human behaviour in naturally occurring social situations that involve obedience.

One way that psychologists can decide if a study has high ecological validity is to replicate the study in a different environment. If the findings are similar to the findings of the original study then this is strong evidence that the study does have ecological validity.

1976 ?

Ethical issues have meant that Milgram's research could not be replicated, until now. A research team at UCL have replicated Milgram's obedience to authority study in an immersive virtual environment. They found that over 70% of the participants in one condition were prepared to administer 20 electric shocks to an avatar. This study was conducted in London in 2006.

ABC news conducted a partial replication of Milgram's study at Santa Clara University in 2007. This study found that 65% of male participants and 73% of female participants gave electric shocks to a learner if told to do so by a psychologist.

Both studies found that participants behaved in very similar ways. According to the psychologist who conducted the study at Santa Clara:

" The typical response is to turn to the experimenter and if not say something, at least give a look that says, 'what should I do?' "

According to the research team at UCL:

" At times when the learner vigorously objected, many turned to the experimenter sitting nearby and asked what they should do ".

This is strong support for Milgram's claim that his study did find out something important about human behaviour in situations where ordinary people are ordered to inflict harm on innocent people. Ordinary people like you and me.

Kaing Guek Eav or 'Comrade Duch' ?: "I was under other people's command, I would have died if i disobeyed it. I did it without any pleasure"

The video below is an extract from Derren Brown's TV show called The Heist. In this TV show Brown replicates Milgram's experiment as part of his attempt to 'condition' ordinary law abiding people into carrying out an armed robbery. Watch it. What would you do in this situation?

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