A Real Life Milgram Experiment

by on October 23, 2014 at 7:30 am in Education, Film, Science | Permalink

This amazing video, introduced by Philip Zimbardo, discusses a real world Milgram “experiment” in which people obeyed an authority figure to an astounding degree, even when the authority figure was just on the telephone.

The video comes from the Heroic Imagination Project which hopes to use the results of social psychology to help people to take effective action in challenging situations. More videos on obedience to authority, including from Milgram’s experiment, can be found in the resource section along with other social psychology videos and other interesting materials.

Here is one more, this time a little lighter, an experiment in which people find themselves unexpectedly married:

1 Baphomet October 23, 2014 at 8:17 am

There is a nice (though chilling) feature film by Craig Zobel based on this incident, COMPLIANCE (2012). I recommend it highly.

2 Alex Tabarrok October 23, 2014 at 12:16 pm

Thanks! While Googling I found Craig Zobel discussing Laura Poitras’s new documentary CitzenFour about Edward Snowden. Which if you think about it makes a lot of sense.


3 FC October 23, 2014 at 3:07 pm

So you’re saying someone told Snowden to take state secrets to Moscow and he mindlessly obeyed?

4 Leonard Van Halen October 24, 2014 at 3:04 pm

Please search for the irony in that question.

5 Exterminate! October 23, 2014 at 8:32 am

One more proof that the only cure for the sickness we call Homo Sapiens is extermination.


6 Moreno Klaus October 23, 2014 at 9:57 am

Is resistance futile?

7 prior_approval October 23, 2014 at 8:46 am

I’m assuming (no Flash on this PC) this refers to a more than decade old series of events?

Most particularly this one –

‘On April 9, 2004, a call was made to a McDonald’s restaurant in Mount Washington, Kentucky. According to assistant manager Donna Summers, the caller identified himself as a policeman, “officer Scott.” The caller gave Summers a vague description of a slightly-built young white woman with dark hair, who was suspected of theft.

Summers believed the description provided was that of Louise Ogborn, a woman who was currently on duty at the restaurant. Ogborn had just turned 18 years of age.

The “police officer” demanded that Ogborn be searched at the restaurant because no officers were available at the moment to handle such a minor matter. Ogborn was brought into an office and ordered to remove her clothes, which Summers then placed in a bag and took to her car, as instructed. Ogborn then put on an apron to partially cover herself. Kim Dockery, another assistant manager,[2] was present at that time; Dockery believed she was there as a witness to the search.


With Nix having left, and short on staff due to the dinnertime rush, Summers needed someone to replace him in the office. She spotted Thomas Simms, the restaurant’s maintenance man, who had stopped in at the restaurant for dessert. She told Simms to go into the office and watch Ogborn.

Simms, however, refused to go along with the caller’s demands. At this point, Summers became suspicious and decided to call a higher-level manager (whom the caller had earlier claimed to have been speaking to on another phone line).

Speaking with her boss, Summers discovered that he had been sleeping and had not spoken to any police officer. She realized that the call had been fraudulent. The caller then abruptly ended the call. An employee dialled *69 before another call could ring in, thus obtaining the number of the caller’s telephone.

Summers was now hysterical and began apologizing. Ogborn (shivering and wrapped in a blanket) was released from the office after three and a half hours. The police were called to the restaurant; they arrested Nix on a charge of sexual assault and began an investigation to find the perpetrator of the scam call.

The entire incident was recorded by a surveillance camera in the office. Summers watched the tape later that night and, according to her attorney, broke off her engagement with Nix.’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strip_search_phone_call_scam#The_Mount_Washington_scam

(And one truly hopes this is not a link to the actual camera footage of what happened in the McDonald’s office, though the youtube link seems to suggest it is. Yes, it has been available on the Internet (meaning that it probably still is). But if it is actual footage, this web site demonstrates, again, the high level of ethical behavior so many people associate with GMU’s econ dept. And if the Heroic Imagination Project is using that actual footage, then it probably should just rename itself into something appropriately slimier. Videos involving such degradation are not entertainment, and they are not teaching material either.)

8 Sam Haysom October 23, 2014 at 9:22 am

Amusingly the likely perpetrator of the act fantasized about becoming a policeman kind of like a certain poster obviously fantasizes about working for the GMU economics department. So I think the real lesson here is be wary of peoole driven to anti-social behavior by frustrated career aspirations.

9 Jeff R. October 23, 2014 at 1:33 pm

I’m sure Ms. Ogborn is touched by your concern for her public image.

10 charlie October 23, 2014 at 8:46 am

Inflation is, and always will be, a monetary phenomenon.

Everyday, in everyway, is getting better and better.

11 Art Deco October 23, 2014 at 10:32 am

What I’d be fascinated to know is how many of these ‘experiments’ implode when the subjects tell the dummy authority figures to bugger off. I’d wager that in those cases, the data is thrown in a drawer and not published.

12 Yancey Ward October 23, 2014 at 11:02 am

This thought occurred to me, too, but I don’t have much faith in the average human being. I can easily imagine most of my fellow citizens being totally subservient to even pretend authority figures.

13 Willitts October 23, 2014 at 11:34 am

Man has the soul of a slave.

Or at least most of us do.

14 Ezequiel October 23, 2014 at 11:03 am

I agree with you.

But in this case, I believe that there is an important question: when and why does it work?

15 RPLong October 23, 2014 at 11:10 am

Dr. Zimbardo has written at length about this. It is fascinating and important work.

16 Axa October 23, 2014 at 11:08 am

I’d like to say this is not possible, but then…….faith healers.

17 Charlie October 23, 2014 at 11:14 am

The experiments have been replicated many times. There were tremendous incentives to disprove it. In the original setting compliance is around 60%.

18 Floccina October 23, 2014 at 11:23 am

The sad state of humanity. Solutions anyone? How do I resist authority when it is appropriate. BTW I have heard that blacks are more resistant to this sort of compliance to authority. So maybe we are fortunate here in the USA to have 15% backs in this country.

19 Floccina October 23, 2014 at 11:24 am

That should have been 12% blacks.

20 Willitts October 23, 2014 at 11:36 am

Youve obviously never been to Washington, DC.

21 Dan Lavatan October 23, 2014 at 4:46 pm

I was born in DC and even though I am white I hate cops. I always take the position they have no real authority and basically ignore them unless under immediate threat of them shooting me.

The police seem to be doing a good job of promoting animosity between themselves and the public. We just need to run for office and never approve a budget allowing for a ratio of more than one officer per hundred thousand people.

22 prior_approval October 24, 2014 at 7:03 am

I’ve been to DC, friends have lived in DC, and at least one of my friends on the GMU faculty was born in DC, as was a non-faculty GMU colleague.

Which leads one to ask – what the hell do you actually know about DC?

23 Peter October 23, 2014 at 11:41 am

Another prank that’s worked is calling hotel guests and telling them that you’re from the fire department. You tell that there’s a fire in the building that’s filling it with toxic fumes, and while waiting for the fire trucks to arrive they should smash out the windows to ventilate their rooms.

24 thomas October 23, 2014 at 11:47 pm

Interesting but fundamentally different as in this case there was no imminent threat, real or imagined.

25 Dain October 24, 2014 at 12:34 am

The lighter side of this “dark side” of humanity is the idea that people are generally trustworthy and affably agreeable. That’s a good thing.

26 Ted Frank October 26, 2014 at 8:49 pm

The documentary is misleading. An examination of relevant phone records of the perpetrator showed that he would have to make dozens of phone calls before finding a compliant target. Even in the Kentucky case, the hoax fell apart when a third McDonald’s employee became involved and asked what the hell was going on. In the real-life Milgram experiment, the vast majority of people hang up on the authority figure. Though Summers successfully sued McDonald’s (!) in a gross miscarriage of justice, both she and her fiancée were criminally convicted.

27 KPres October 27, 2014 at 4:12 pm

Exactly. What’s more telling here is how many people will believe whatever some supposed intellectual authority tells them without any consideration or skepticism so long as it’s presented in a pseudo-scientific format. I mean, it happened 60 times! It must be true! They said so in the video, after all! The intelligentsia, and the unmitigated power and influence they exert, is the real threat to human liberty. Always has been.

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