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Evaluate Two Pieces of Psychological Research – Milgram and Asch

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In 1963 professor Stanley Milgram carried out a ‘Study of Obedience to Authority’ in which he aimed to answer the question, “Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders” (Milgram, 1974). To do this. Milgram elaborated on two theories, one of which was Solomon Asch’s 1956 ‘conformity experiments’.

In 1963 Milgram put out an advertisement asking for men, aged between 20 and 50,to volunteer to partake in what he deceptively termed ‘a scientific study of memory and learning’. When the volunteers arrived at Yale University, they were met by a young man named Jack Williams, who was dressed in a white laboratory coat. He introduced himself as the man who would be conducting the experiment. The volunteers were also introduced to Mr. Wallace who was presented as a fellow volunteer. In actual fact both Mr. Wallace and Mr. Williams were both actors. The participants were informed that the nature of the experiment in which they would partake, was to ‘assess the effects of punishment on learning’. They then were told to pick a piece of paper, written on which would be the role they would play in the experiment. This part of the experiment was arranged such that the role of Mr. Wallace was always the ‘learner’ and that of the true volunteer was always the ‘teacher’. The ‘learner’ Mr. Wallace was taken to a room and strapped into a chair and electrodes attached to him. The volunteer was then taken to an adjacent room in which was an electric shock generator.

On the generator was switches ranging from 15 volts to 450 volts, these were also labeled with phrases describing the level of shock, with the maximum shock being labeled ‘XXX’. Initially, a shock was administered to the teacher to prove the generator was real. From here the experiment started, the learner was tested on word pairs which they had tried to memorize earlier. When they answered a question incorrectly, the teacher administered a shock, which increased by 15 volts consecutively. As the shocks increased in strength, a reaction such as a scream was let out from the room containing the learner. Unbeknownst to the teacher, the screams and reactions were actually just tape recordings being played, as the learner received no actual shocks. It could possibly be concluded that the reason for Milgram’s experiment, was to distinguish between conformity and obedience. However these two qualities are similar, in that they involve an individual relinquishing their own judgment in favor of external pressure. When a person conforms they change their behavior in accordance with peer pressure, however when a person is obedient, they act as ordered or instructed.

It is important to look at any factors that could affect the outcome of the experiment. For example; internal and external validity, ethical issues and ecological validity. For instance, in terms of internal validity, the fact the experiment was held at Yale, a prestigious American University, raised the validity of the experiment. This is proven as Milgram later repeated his experiment in a ‘run-down office building’ and obedience levels dropped, suggesting that prestige increases obedience. The lab coat represents expert knowledge and therefore its presence may also have been a factor as to the level of obedience.

When considering external validity it is noteworthy that Milgram asked that only males apply. However the applicants were a good cross section of ages. The volunteers were ‘self selecting’ (simplepyschology, 12/12/12) in that they chose to respond to the advertisement. The advertisement may have attracted those with a ‘volunteer personality’. The financial reward may also have been an influencing factor and further biased the experiment results. The point in time when the experiment was conducted may have affected the results. The experiment was conducted under laboratory conditions, far removed from real life. Situations where an average person in everyday life would find themselves needing to be obedient, is likely to be more subtle than administering painful electric shocks. However there has to be a trade off between experimental control and ecological validity, in that the more control psychologists exert in a study the less like everyday life the conditions become.

Milgram’s experiment was an expansion of Solomon Asch’s Conformity Experiment conducted in 1951. The aim of the experiment was to examine whether an individual would go against their better judgment in order to conform to the social majority. Asch conducted his experiment under laboratory conditions on 123 male students from Swarthmore College USA. The students were asked to perform a task, comparing the lengths of vertical lines. Between four and seven students were seated in a line. One of the students was unaware that the remaining three to six students, had previously been primed to agree amongst themselves what responses they would give when undertaking the task. Each student had to give his answer out loud as to which of 3 different length lines, (A, B or C) matched a the initial example line.

In each case the correct answer was obvious. The unaware student was sat at the end of the row so that they gave their answer last. Initially the primed students gave the correct answer in order to avert suspicion. In total the students were given 18 tasks, out of which the primed students answered incorrectly 12 times. Asch called these the ‘critical trials’ (McLeod, 2008). In these instances he was looking to see whether the unprimed, or ‘real student’ would give the right answer (which was in front of him), or conform to the answer the given by the majority. Asch discovered that during the 12 critical trials 32% of the real students chose to answer with the majority, even though the answer was incorrect. 75% went with the majority at least once and only 25% did not conform.

Asch interviewed each of the students who had not been primed prior to the experiment, in order to discover why they chose to ignore the obviously correct answer, in favor of the incorrect majority. He discovered that most of the students did realize they were giving wrong answers but chose to go along with the majority, to avoid being seen as different. Asch concluded that people conform because they want to fit in (normative influence) or because they believe the majority, must be better informed than they are (informative influence). In evaluating Asch’s conformity experiment it should be noted that all the participants were males belonging to the same age group, and therefore providing biased results. The experiment was conducted under laboratory conditions and the visual test of comparing lines on a piece of paper, does not provide a real life situation and is therefore low in ecological validity. The participating students were not protected from any psychological stress that may have resulted from answering contrary to the norm. In addition Asch actually deceived the students by implying they were taking part in an experiment on vision, when in fact the experiment was to ascertain whether the naive student would feel compelled to conform with the majority.

In both of the experiments examined here variables were introduced at different times throughout the investigations. In Asch’s experiment he changed the setup so that one of the actors was told to give the correct answer when the remainder were told to give an incorrect answer. The objective of this was to see if the volunteer would now be more likely to give the correct answer. Later he also introduced a variable in which the volunteer was to write his answer down on paper, therefore being exempt from judgment by the other men in the room, Asch found that in this case, conformity dropped by two thirds. In Milgram’s case, the initial experiment was set out so that the learner was to ‘pound loudly on the wall at 300 volts, and after 315 volts’ (Gross, 2000) to stop ponding and give no further response. Whereas in his second experiment the teacher was exposed to tape recorded cries of pain.


McLeod, S. (2007). The Milgram Experiment. Available: http://www.simplypsychology.org/milgram.html. Last accessed 13th December 2012.

McLeod, S. (2008). The Milgram Experiment. Available: http://www.simplypsychology.org/asch-conformity.html. Last accessed 12th December 2012.

Various. (2010). Milgram Experiment. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment. Last accessed 12 December 2012.

Myers, D (2010). Social Psychology. London: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.

Gross, R (2000). Psychology: A New Introduction For A Leve. 2nd ed. Oxford: Hodder & Stoughton. 510-520.

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