Social Sciences

Start Free Trial

What was the hypothesis being tested in the Milgram experiment? What were the dependent and independent variables? How was the hypothesis tested?

Quick answer:

The hypothesis tested in the Milgram experiment was that, under the right circumstances, people would follow the directions of an authority figure to the extent of harming or even killing other people. The dependent variable was the response of the research subject. They either administered the "shock" as directed, or they refused. The independent variable was the scenario in which the instructions were given. Different variables included the severity of shocks, the persistence of authority figure, and the response of the "victim."

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Milgram's famous experiment came as a result of the fallout from WWII. Specifically, when the Nazis were put on trial, many of them claimed that they participated in the atrocities against other humans because they were following orders. In essence, humanity was confronted by the question of whether or not following the orders of an authority figure was a suitable excuse for harming others.

What is human nature? Is it independent enough to know right from wrong and to adhere to those beliefs no matter what? Or is it obedient to authority regardless of the outcomes? This was a burning social question of the time, and it was at the core of Milgram's experiment.

Milgram's hypothesis and variables were quite straightforward. He hypothesized that in certain conditions or contexts, people would exhibit behaviour that is abnormal for them. He thought that people would do agonizing or stressful things if they believed they were following the orders of an authority who is ultimately responsible for the outcome.

His experiment was in fact a number of experiments with variations to the independent variable (IV), but the dependent variable (DV) remained the same. How high a shock will a person administer to another if they are instructed to do so? It was also phrased in some variations of the experiment as measuring how many people will administer the highest shock possible—which they are told can kill a person—if they are instructed to do so.

The independent variable was the context or conditions in which the instructions were presented to the subject. Again, the experiment was intended to replicate conditions in which a person would feel obliged to follow instructions. Milgram wanted to replicate the highly disciplined, militaristic dynamic of the Nazis.

Aspects of the IV included the laboratory setting, the instructions given by the authority figure, and the response to the shocks by the "victim". Together, these conditions created the dynamic of an authority figure present and in charge of the proceedings and presumably responsible for the outcome. Additionally, it created awareness within the subject that they were doing harm to another as a result of following those instructions.

Although there was some variation, the testing began with deception. The subject was deceived into believing that the scenario was real, that the other person, the "student/victim" was a volunteer like themselves, and that the person being shocked was truly experiencing pain. In truth, the "student/victim" and the "authority figure" were both actors. They played out a false scenario against which the response of the subject could be measured.

The subject was told simply to administer the scheduled shock as directed each time the "student/victim" made a mistake, which they did on purpose, as part of the experiment. As sequential mistakes were made, the level of the shock rose to levels that the subject was told were dangerous. When the subject hesitated, the authority figure encouraged them to continue as instructed. Many subjects did so against their own desires.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

As a Social psychologist, Stanley Milgram was particularly interested in the affects of interaction on behavior. Interestingly, this experiment was born to test the limits of people's compliance and obedience under conditions of potentially extreme cognitive dissonance, and authority. Essentially, Milgram wanted to understand, how far would people obey orders given from an authority figure, under circumstances that contradicted their beliefs. This was his hypothesis.

It is important to note that this experiment was conducted with four variations. Overall, each variation involved the same basic test. Respondents, or "Teachers", were told that the effect of punishments on learning ability were being testing. "Learners", or test subjects, were to be shocked when they have an incorrect answer to a question. "Teachers" were also told to treat silence as an incorrect response. With each incorrect response, the degree of shock administered was to increase based on a set of levers ranging from 75 volts, or minimal shock, to 450 volts or, XXX.

With each variation of the experiment, the independent and dependent variables changed slightly, as the experiment varied. Please see a brief description of the independent variables through each variation of the experiment, and how they were tested.

Experiment Variation I:

Independent Variable: Immediate proximity to authority.

Test: Respondents or "Teachers" were in a room with the authority figure, they could see the test subject, and were nudged along with statements like,

The experiment requires you to continue.

Experiment Variation II:

Independent Varaible: Rebellious interveners (This variation tested rather introducing people who questioned authority, would change the obedience of others.)

Test: Respondents were kept together in a room, and some individuals who fit the category of rebellious or questions authority, were kept amongst a group of average responders. The test was to see how many people would follow the rebellion and not comply with the experiment. 

Experiment Variation III:

Independent Variable: Proximity to Learner (This variation tested rather being in the room with the test subject would change the obedience level.)

Test: Respondents were in the same room with the learner, they could not see the authority, and were forced to place the learner's hand on the shock plate, and administer the shock.

Experiment Variation IV:

Independent Varaibale: Perception of authority (This variation tested how each responder's idea of the authority figure, changed the level of obedience.)

Test: Responder's were paired with lesser authorities and told to administer shocks to the learner. This could have been two responder pairings, or a lab tech and a responder. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The hypothesis being tested seems to have been that Americans would not be willing to inflict pain on one another simply because they were told to do so.

The dependent variable in this experiment was the voltage of shock that the "teachers" in the experiment were willing to administer to the "learners."

In the original experiment, there really was not an independent variable.  The researchers were simply trying to find out how far Americans would go in obeying authority.

You could argue that nationality was the independent variable.  However, I do not think this is correct because the original experiment was not comparing results of various nationalities.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial