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Author: Rachel Gill – Psychology Undergraduate


Stanley Milgram’s famously controversial experiments testing individual boundaries of obedience to authority by encouraging unknowing research participants to engage in emulated torture (subjects were convinced to believe they were administering electric shocks to individuals, who were actors in a separate room protesting in feigned pain.) prompts several questions about motivational factors that drive individuals to obey powers of authority despite harm to others. Jerry Burger, a psychologist who recently replicated the Milgram experiment achieved results similar to the original. This examination considers the implications of the experimental results and refers, specifically, to the article on the subject, featured in American Psychologist (2009), written by Dave Munger.

Obedience to Authority: Motivation Mystique & the Milgram Experiment

Summary of Research

Milgram’s original research shows that 60 percent of the research subjects administered the maximum 450 volts of (believed) electricity with 80 percent surpassing the 150-volt threshold that Milgram had predicted prior to administering the experiment. Burger’s 2006 replicated experiment found 70 percent exceeding the 150 volt standard. To address potential skewing of data and issue of controversy, Burger reinforced his study by screening out subjects who had previously completed 2 courses of psychology and presented potential bias and those with diagnosable mental disorders whose conditions might be exasperated by participation.

The Nature of Rebellious Action

In his article reviewing the subject, Dave Munger offers a summarized explanation of Milgram and Burger’s results with a brief, unfounded conclusion, “the nature of the rebellious action counts” . . . “only when rebels outnumber authority figures can disobedience readily spread.” While Munger’s estimation is certainly reasonable, he offers no quantifiable data that would warrant his perspective. Ultimately, the subjective nature of investigating and interpreting motivational factors that influence behavior presents a problem to researchers that compromise validity, reliability, and hinders psychology’s progressive efforts to find a place amongst the more established, respected sciences.

Regarding Uncharted Error Potential

Moreover, while Burger’s replicated research offers investigative enhancements that take into consideration error potentials previously unidentified, such improvements seem inconsequential where individual traits, vulnerability factors, gender/cultural/lifestyle and environmental influences are not representative  of the complex dynamics that comprise each person’s  unique process for accomplishing moral reasoning and the individual behavioral variations that arise across time and situational contexts. Additionally, Milgram and Burger’s experiment does not consider the importance of expectation effect in motivating obedient behavior. (Hans, Smith, Block 183-281)

Acquired Drives: Considering Behavior Motivation

E.C. Tolman’s concept of acquired drives (Figure 1) explains motive as an acquisition achieved through instrumental learning, suggesting that motivations for behavior transpires through a process uniquely resolved through a mechanism defined by individual differences and sensitivity to environmental stimuli. (Craighead, Nemeroff 5)

In conclusion, while Milgram and Burger’s research certainly offers a dramatic and intriguing window into the collaborative function of moral reasoning and obedient behavior, the study is incomplete, vulnerable to misinterpretation and lacks appropriate quantifiable controls necessary for balancing the many error risk potentials involved in conducting subjective psychological analysis and essential in meeting standards for scientific research.


Burger, J. M. (2009). Replicating Milgram: Would people still obey today? American Psychologist, 64(1), 1-11. doi: 10.1037/a0010932

Craighead, Edward W., Charles B. Nemeroff. (2004). The Concise Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology and Behavioral Science 3rd Edition. Wiley & Sons. Hoboken: New Jersey

Hann, N., Smith, B., & Block, J. (1968). Moral reasoning of young adults. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 10, 183–201.

Figure Captions

Figure 1.


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