The Milgram experiment is frequently cited as proof that most people in the Nazis situation would act similar to them. I don’t understand that conclusion because Milgram's experiment was completely unlike the Nazi's actual experience and situation.

Milgram's experiment may prove that most people would obey a direct order from an authority figure against their own will and better judgment, if the order was given in a one on one setting. Particularly when the the authority figure is standing right there and acting coercive like Milgram's people were. That is all.

But that is not the situation the Nazis were facing. Unlike the subjects of Milgram's experiment the Nazis:

(1) Weren’t being micromanaged. They did not have an authority figure directly telling them what to do at every move and turn. They also did not have the authority figure standing directly over them as they committed their crimes.

(2) Had time to think over what they were doing and opportunity to discuss it with others.

(3) Were given more of an option to stop if they requested it. Unlike Milgram's subject they weren’t told on their fourth request to stop “You have no other choice; you must go on” which borders on an open threat (in general if you are looking to study and compare to the Nazi's where did refusal of the first four requests to stop come from? Is there any evidence whatsoever that the Nazis had a similar across the board policy of saying no to the first four transfer requests?)

(4)Did not show the signs of distress Milgram's subjects did

(5)Were not receiving orders on a one on one basis. Studies have shown that even in situations where most people would give in to an external pressure they would not do so if they can find even one ally in resisting that pressure.

It seems to me that for the Milgram experiment to be analogous to the Nazis experience you would need to conduct the experiment with (a) a large group of subjects being given orders at once and (b) after giving orders the authority figure recedes to the background (c)is allowing the subjects a certain degree of flexibility and permission to make judgment calls.

Why is Milgram so frequently cited in relation to the Nazis in any context? .

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ To reduce the chance of ambiguity, could you cite the exact conclusion of the experiment in light of which you wrote this question (including a reference), and which you would like clarification on? There are likely multiple conclusions, and different interpretations (depending on what you read). $\endgroup$
    – Steven Jeuris
    Commented Jun 2 at 7:23
  • $\begingroup$ Agreed with @StevenJeuris: This question will generate a lot of opinion (making it off-topic here) unless we have the author's actual conclusion quoted correctly. I highly doubt Milgram believed he had the Nazis figured out based on this one experimental program. Also note that the Milgram Experiment has been widely discredited. $\endgroup$
    – Arnon Weinberg
    Commented Jun 2 at 7:36
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I don't think the answers are that interesting to psychology as a science. The Milgram experiment is famous. Nazis are infamous. I think there is a natural curiosity when faced with unspeakable human behavior to want to create some explanation for it, to exert some level of control. Combining them together makes a "good story" where "good story" is defined as "something people will read". It need not have anything to do with rigorous methodology or make any actual sense. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Jun 7 at 13:57

1 Answer 1


I don't think there is a straight answer to your question. To my mind, conformity and obedience to authority were thought to be central factors of the Nazi system in Germany at the time - albeit, most certainly, not the only factors! Milgram's study could be said to be one possible operationalisation of these constructs. It's not unlikely that the situations people encountered in real life may have been quite different. However, an experiment typically involves some form of abstraction and may thus not match the exact situation. In science, this is often deemed acceptable, as you are aiming to test the underlying construct in a more controlled environment, hoping that this may permit more valid conclusions. The controlled environment is important to reduce the impact of extraneous and confounding variables (i.e., other factors that could explain your results). In any case, a single study is pretty meaningless in science when you want to draw firm(er) conclusions about an area, as the effects might simply be due to random variation. For stronger conclusions you need a whole host of studies, ideally in combination with meta-analyses and reviews. When considered thus, the exact operationalisation of this study is not as important. It would only be pertinent if a whole array of studies, collectively and systematically, failed to include certain factors (e.g., including some sort of "realism" in their design). So, that might be something to follow up on. That is, have any of the studies that have been conducted since the original Milgram experiment failed to include some form of "realism", as you describe it? If so, that could be reason for another study, but rest assured that a lot of work has already gone on in this area, so it would be prudent to check the literature more thoroughly first. I should also hasten to add that psychological studies usually cannot be considered proof of something - unless you are talking about "proof of concept" or the like :-)! They can only provide evidence (= a certain likelihood) for or against a notion; actual proofs pertain to mathematics or physics. Although not a simple "yes" or "no", I hope these deliberations help you in your quest to finding an answer.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.