psychology, social psychology, social science.
Milgram is generally regarded as one of the most important and controversial psychologists of the twentieth century largely because of his most famous work—a path-breaking series of experiments on obedience to authority. He also made pioneering contributions to cross-cultural research, the nature of social networks, and urban psychology. Historically, Milgram’s obedience studies have overshadowed his other scientific contributions because of their troubling implications about human nature and because of the ethics of the experimental methods he used to obtain his findings.
Early Development and Education . Milgram was born in the Bronx, New York, on 15 August 1933, to Eastern European Jewish parents, Samuel and Adele, who had emigrated separately to the United States around the time of World War I. Samuel was a baker, and Adele assisted him in the store in addition to running their household.
Stanley attended the local elementary school, PS 77, and James Monroe High School. At Monroe he was placed in honors classes and graduated in only three years. He was a member of Arista, the honor society, and became editor of the school newspaper. He also worked on stagecraft for school productions, an experience he drew on later to help infuse his experiments with the dramatic elements that made them such credible and powerful experiences for his subjects.
He enrolled in Queens College and majored in political science with a minor in art. During the summer of 1953 he took a trip to Europe, taking a French language course at the Sorbonne, in Paris, and touring France, Spain, and Italy. The trip made him a lifelong Francophile and imbued him with an appreciation of the distinctive atmospheres of cities, a precursor of his later professional interest in urban psychology.
Graduate Education at Harvard . Although initially Mil-gram had planned to enter the foreign service corps, during his senior year he heard about the Department of Social Relations at Harvard University. Its unique interdisciplinary approach appealed to Milgram, who changed his plans and applied to the program with a goal of obtaining a PhD in social psychology. At first he was rejected because he had not taken any psychology courses at Queens. Undeterred by this setback, he took six different psychology courses at three different New York area colleges during the summer of 1954 to make up his deficit, enabling his acceptance as a special student in the fall.
At Harvard, Gordon Allport became his mentor; the two developed a lifelong friendship. Milgram also developed close relationships of mutual respect with Jerome Bruner and Roger Brown. However, the person who became his most important scientific influence— Solomon Asch—was not a regular member of the Harvard faculty. Asch had come to the department as a visiting lecturer during the 1955–1956 academic year, and Allport assigned Milgram to serve as his teaching and research assistant.
Asch had brought a Gestalt orientation to social psychology, and his research was characterized by a fusion of philosophic depth and an uncluttered style of research. Milgram’s own accessible research style and his belief that “simplicity is the key to effective scientific inquiry” (1974, p. 13) had the imprint of Asch’s influence.
Asch had become well known for his pioneering work on conformity using a laboratory paradigm that he invented. In his experiments, subjects were led to believe they were participating in a study of perceptual judgment. On each trial, the task of the subject, who was seated with six or seven other participants, was to indicate which one of a triad of vertical lines was equal in length to a fourth line. Each participant was to announce his match, in turn. All but one of the subjects were actually confederates who gave, unanimously, incorrect answers on specific “critical trials,” and the lone naive subject was one of the last to give his answer. Would the subject yield to group pressure and also give an incorrect match, or would he maintain his independence and announce the correct answer?
Although there were wide variations among the subjects, on the average they yielded to the bogus majority on about one-third of the trials. Asch went on to conduct many different variations of his basic procedure, such as varying the size of the pressure group, increasing the difficulty of the task by reducing the differences among the three stimulus lines, and rupturing the unanimity of the bogus majority.
Hoping to emulate Asch in his professional career, Milgram would come up with a distinctive experimental paradigm and then “worry it to death,” as Brown put it (unpublished interview with author, 23 June 1993) For his doctoral dissertation, he did a cross-national comparison of conforming tendencies in Norway and France, using a variation of the Asch procedure involving sound rather than visual stimuli. It was a highly ambitious study—even Allport, who invariably was supportive of Milgram’s efforts, tried to dissuade him. First, in 1957–1958, he set up a lab and collected data in Oslo, and the following year duplicated the procedures near Paris. Overall, he found significantly more conformity in Norway than in France. Although rarely recognized as such, this was a pioneering piece of work—one of the first scientific studies of cross-national differences in behavior. It was also a personal milestone for Milgram. He now saw that he was capable of doing original research. His achievement also made him aim high in his future research career and not be willing to settle for the mundane.
In the fall of 1959, Milgram accepted an invitation from Asch—who was then a visiting member at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton—to help him edit a book on his conformity research, a book that was never published. Concurrently, Milgram was writing up his dissertation. Although the circumstances turned out to be less than ideal, he was able to deliver it to Allport by the required deadline and was awarded his PhD in June 1960.
Yale and the Obedience Experiments . While still with Asch in Princeton, on 3 May 1960, Milgram received a letter from Leonard Doob, a senior social psychologist in Yale’s Department of Psychology, informing him of an opening and inviting him to visit if he was interested. The meeting with Doob resulted in an offer from Yale. Mil-gram accepted and he began at Yale in the fall of 1960 as an assistant professor. In December 1961 he married Alexandra (Sasha) Menkin. They had two children, Michele born in 1964 and Marc in 1967.
By the time he left Asch in June 1960, Milgram had already decided that he wanted to study obedience to authority. He conducted some pilot studies and applied for a grant from the National Science Foundation. As soon as the grant was approved, in May 1961, Milgram started working out the details of his planned experiments, which he conducted beginning in August of that year in Linsly-Chittenden Hall on Yale’s Old Campus.
The basic laboratory procedure went as follows: The experimenter told the subject that the purpose of the experiment was to study the effects of punishment on learning, and that his job was to teach another subject (the
learner) to memorize a list of adjective-noun word pairs. The teacher sat in front of a shock machine with thirty lever switches arrayed horizontally on its front panel— each one corresponding to increasing shock voltages in 15-volt steps, beginning with 15 volts and ending with the 450-volt maximum. Whenever the learner—sitting in an adjacent room—made a mistake, the teacher had to give him a shock and, on each subsequent error, he had to increase the intensity of the shock, one step at a time. The learner reacted to the shocks with screams that became increasingly pitiful and desperate, until he finally fell silent and stopped giving answers. Actually, unbeknownst to the subject, the shock machine was a realistic-looking prop and no actual shocks were delivered to the learner, a confederate who only feigned his suffering. Milgram found that about two-thirds of the subjects were fully obedient to the experimental authority and continued to the maximum shock level.
During the course of the 1961–1962 academic year, Milgram conducted more than twenty different experimental variations to answer specific questions. Among the findings, the amount of “shock” given declined:
- with decreasing distance between the subject and learner;
- with increasing distance between experimenter and subject;
- when the subject saw two other “subjects” defying the experimenter;
- when the subject could choose the amount of shock to give in response to the learner’s mistakes;
- when the experimenter called a halt to the proceedings, even though the learner insisted that they continue.
Male and female subjects were equal in their degree of obedience—65 percent were fully obedient. Coincidentally, the obedience experiments partially overlapped the trial of Adolf Eichmann (which began 11 April 1961, in Jerusalem) for his role in the murder of six million Jews
during the Holocaust. The Israeli government carried out his death sentence on 31 May 1962, four days after Mil-gram had run his last subject, presaging a more substantive connection that was to be made later between the obedience experiments and the behavior of the Nazis during World War II.
There are two important lessons to be drawn from the results of the obedience experiments. First is the extreme willingness of individuals to obey legitimate authority, even when the orders conflict with one’s moral principles. Second is the causal power of the situation to override stable, personal beliefs and values. For example, obedience varied as a function of subject-learner distance even though the wrongfulness of hurting another person remained unchanged.
The enduring impact of the obedience experiments is manifested in two ways. First, it has altered some prevailing views of human nature. It has generally been assumed that there is a direct line between the kind of person an individual is and his or her actions. But the obedience experiments have shown that one need not be evil or aberrant to act inhumanely. While individuals would like to believe that, when confronted with a moral dilemma, they will act as their consciences dictate, Milgram’s experiments have revealed that, under the weight of powerful social pressures, one’s moral sense can readily be trumped.
The second enduring legacy of the obedience research is its impact on research ethics. Milgram had used deception and created an unusually stressful experience for his subjects, which they had not anticipated. The controversy stirred up by his research, together with a handful of other ethically questionable studies, such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, led to the formalization of principles for the protection of human research subjects by the U.S. government—their most visible manifestation being the requirement of screening and approval of research proposals by Institutional Review Boards (IRBs).
While still at Yale, after completion of the obedience experiments, Milgram devised the lost-letter technique as a way of measuring community attitudes. The technique involves “losing” letters addressed to different recipients in various locations, such as stores and sidewalks. The proportion of letters that end up being mailed serves as a behavioral indicator of attitudes. For example, in one study conducted in New Haven, Connecticut, Milgram found that only about a third as many letters addressed to Friends of the Nazi Party or Friends of the Communist Party were mailed than ones addressed to medical research associates or a private individual. Over the years, it has been the most frequently used unobtrusive measure of attitudes. It is a procedure that does not involve personal contact, and, as such, gave Milgram a much-needed respite from the intense, confrontational experience of the obedience experiments.
Return to Harvard . As he ended his first three years at Yale, Milgram was invited to join the Department of Social Relations at Harvard. While he could have continued at Yale, Milgram considered Harvard an “academic Eden,” and he accepted a position there as an assistant professor in the fall of 1963.
At Harvard, Milgram focused on two areas of research. First was a continuation of his lost-letter technique. For example, in 1964, he used it to predict the outcome of the Johnson-Goldwater presidential contest. Second, he embarked on a totally new course of research—“the small world problem.” Ithiel de Sola Pool, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Manfred Kochen, a mathematician with International Business Machines (IBM), had developed a theoretical model that predicted that large social networks could be traversed by a relatively small chain of acquaintances, and Milgram decided to test it empirically with a procedure that he devised, “the small world method.” In one study, he gave a folder to each of a group of randomly selected “starters” in Omaha, Nebraska, and told them to send it on to a particular stockbroker in Boston, by sending it on to close acquaintances who they thought would move it closer to the target. Only about 25 percent of the chains were completed. But, among those chains, the results were supportive of the small-world idea. On the average, it took about six intermediaries for a starter to reach the target.
According to Charles Kadushin, a social network researcher, by the late 1980s, the small-world method had become “one of the critical tools of network analysis” (1989, p. xxiv). Since the early 1990s, the broader public became aware of Milgram’s discovery of the small-world phenomenon via a Broadway play titled “Six Degrees of Separation.” More importantly, in 1998, two applied mathematicians at Cornell, Steven Strogatz and Duncan Watts, significantly expanded the domain of applicability of the small-world concept. They made the startling discovery that Milgram seems to have identified an underlying principle that is pervasive in the physical world, and not limited to social contacts. They found that the small-world effect—the remarkable ability of very large networks to be traversed in only a small number of steps—can be found in domains as wide-ranging as the electric power grid of the western United States and the neural pathways of nematode worms.
In the fall of 1966, Milgram came up for consideration for promotion and tenure by Harvard’s Department of Social Relations. After a lengthy and contentious debate, the promotion and tenure committee reached a negative decision. Apparently, some members of the committee continued to be troubled by his obedience experiments and, according to his colleague, Roger Brown, ascribed to him “some of the properties of the experiment. That is, they thought he was sort of manipulative, or the mad doctor, or something of this sort. … They felt uneasy about him” (unpublished interview with author, 23 June, 1993).
Studying the Psychology of City Life . Being turned down by the place he considered “academic Eden” was a traumatic experience for Milgram. He was offered, and accepted, a position at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY) to head their newly developing PhD program in social psychology in the fall of 1967. In the process, he went from a lecturer to a full professor—skipping the assistant and associate professor levels—at double his Harvard salary. Yet the fact that he did not get any offers from more prestigious universities gnawed at him, and he did not expect to stay at CUNY more than five years.
As it turned out, CUNY worked out much better than expected, and he remained there until his untimely death from a heart attack in 1984. Toward the end of his stay at Harvard, he had begun to develop an interest in the scientific study of cities. Now, city life became a central focus of his interests, and his belief that social psychology could be applied to urban issues became manifest both in the curriculum of the doctoral program he now headed and the kind of research that he and his students conducted. CUNY’s doctoral program became the first social psychology program in the United States with an urban emphasis.
In 1970 Milgram published “The Experience of Living in Cities,” in Science, which laid the foundation for the newly developing field of urban psychology. Besides presenting a number of innovative experiments, Milgram introduced the unifying concept of “overload” to help make sense of the various differences in behavior between city and small-town residents that he and his students and others had found. Borrowing from cybernetics, Milgram used the concept of overload to describe a system that is barraged by more input than it can process. Milgram argued that modifications in behavior engendered by urban living can be seen as representing the various ways that individuals tried to adapt to the sensory onslaught of city life.
At the suggestion of Harry From, a graduate student with a background as a filmmaker, in 1972 they collaborated on an award-winning film, “The City and the Self,” based on Milgram’s Science article. Milgram developed a passion for filmmaking and, between 1974 and 1976, he and From produced four other films on various topics in social psychology.
Among the studies generated by his interest in city psychology, three are especially noteworthy. First, he studied the mental maps of New Yorkers and Parisians, using methods that he invented—because, as he explained: “The image of the city is not just extra mental baggage; it is the necessary accompaniment to living in a complex and highly variegated environment. … People make many important decisions based on their conception of a city, rather than the reality of it” (1977, pp. 8, 89). and second, he conducted research on subway norms. Stimulated by his mother-in-law’s complaint about riders not offering their seats to a gray-haired lady like her, he had his students approach seated subway passengers and ask them for their seats. They found, much to everyone’s surprise, that 56 percent of the subjects gave up their seats, even without any justification for the request. Third, he identified a species of urban life, which he dubbed “familiar strangers”—persons one sees day after day and yet never interacts with. Milgram’s students photographed clusters of commuters at a train station while waiting for their trains to Manhattan. When shown the photographs, on the average, commuters reported seeing four familiar strangers, while the average number of passengers they had spoken to was 1.5. Milgram believed that the tendency not to interact with familiar strangers was a form of adaptation to urban overload. These individuals are depersonalized and treated as part of the scenery, rather than as people with whom to engage.
Perhaps the most important experiment Milgram conducted while at CUNY investigated the antisocial effects of television. Its importance lies not so much in the findings, but in the methodology used. Over the course of a year during 1970 and 1971, funded by a quarter-million dollar grant from CBS’s Office of Social Research, Mil-gram and a research associate, R. Lance Shotland, conducted a series of field experiments to study the negative effects of television viewing. Milgram was able to get CBS to produce a particular episode of their popular prime-time series “Medical Center,” tailored to fit the needs of his experiment. Three different versions were produced, all with the identical story line, but differing in their endings: two of them depicted variations of an antisocial act, while the third ended in a prosocial act. Across a series of eight experiments, viewers saw one of the three versions of the episode and then a few days later were given the opportunity to carry out a destructive act similar to what was depicted in the antisocial versions. The results indicated that viewers of the antisocial versions were no more likely to act destructively than viewers of the prosocial version or those who watched another, thematically different episode from the series. What makes this study unique is that this was the first, and only, time a mass media researcher was able to get stimulus materials custom made for the specific needs of an experiment, and thereby achieve maximal control over the independent variable.
Defining Characteristics of Milgram’s Approach . Although Milgram identified solidly with social psychology, he disagreed with its heavy emphasis on theory-driven research aimed at testing directional hypotheses. In contrast, Milgram’s approach was phenomenon-centered and, as such, represents a continuation, through Asch, of the Gestalt tradition. At the same time, his boundless confidence in studying a wide range of social phenomena scientifically makes him supremely Lewinian. The main driving force behind most of Milgram’s research was a relentless curiosity, rather than theory testing. Typically it was a quest to verify the existence of a phenomenon or regularity in behavior suggested by subjective experience, and, once established, to identify the factors that led to variations in the observed phenomenon. Hence his body of research encompassed a wide range of mostly unrelated topics.
Outcome . Yet, below surface appearances, one can find the following unifying commonalities that, in their totality, define Milgram’s style of research: outcome measures that are observable, discrete, and dichotomous. Milgram was first and foremost an experimentalist who was able to study a wide variety of phenomena within the structural confines of the randomized experiment. He considered the use of the experimental method an essential feature of social psychology. But he was not dogmatic about this, because ultimately for Milgram the choice of method was dictated by the requirements of the behavior being studied, not vice versa. When the problem called for it, he readily used less powerful research methods. The unifying characteristic of Milgram’s data-gathering techniques was in the nature of the target behaviors he studied. In most of his studies, the outcome measure was discrete and dichotomous: It was essentially a yes or no answer to the question of whether a given behavior occurred. Did New York City subway riders give up their seats when requested to? Were lost letters differing in the admirability of their targets mailed or not? This undoubtedly was what made much of Milgram’s research so compelling. In contrast to the relativism and ambiguity inherent in many continuous measures (e.g., a point on a numerical scale), the discrete, observable acts comprising most of Milgram’s findings lent them a quality of absoluteness, clarity, and conclusiveness that made their implications readily discernible to both lay and professional readers.
The Salience of Moral Issues . In descriptions of his studies, Milgram often saw the behavior under focus as representing the resolution of a conflict between two behavioral alternatives, one of which the person ought to have chosen according to moral, or at least normative, standards.
Clearly, of all of Milgram’s work, the most heavily imbued with moral significance was his obedience research. In those studies Milgram confronted two moral issues, the first by design and the second largely (though not solely) in response to criticisms of the ethics of the experiments. The first moral issue was embedded in the conflict situation Milgram’s subjects found themselves in—a conflict between obeying legitimate authority and following the dictates of one’s conscience. The second moral issue raised by the obedience experiments had to do with Milgram’s treatment of his subjects. Beginning with Diana Baumrind (1964), a number of writers have debated the ethics of placing subjects in the extremely stressful situation Milgram created and of deceiving them about the true purpose of the experiment. A moral perspective also pervaded many of Milgram’s other writings. Thus, for example, he saw withdrawal from moral and social involvement with others as one of the consequences of the stimulus overload characteristic of urban life. Mil-gram even brought a moral viewpoint to phenomena one would not normally conceptualize in those terms. Thus, he saw the Asch group-pressure experiments as representing a “dilemma of truth versus conformity,” one that the person had to resolve in a manner that was either “consistent with or in opposition to moral values” (1977, p. 92).
The Primacy of Situational Determinants . As already noted, Milgram was an experimentalist who was able to apply the experimental method to a wide variety of phenomena. Milgram was also an experimentalist in the sense that situational factors had primacy in his thinking as potential determinants of behavior. One of the strongest statements in this regard comes toward the end of Milgram’s (1974) book:
The disposition a person brings to the experiment is probably less important a cause of his behavior than most readers assume. For the social psychology of this century reveals a major lesson: often, it is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act. (p. 205)
Style, Not Just Substance . Milgram’s writing was invariably lucid and readable, whether he was addressing fellow psychologists reading a journal report of one of his experiments or readers of a general-circulation magazine. A wry sense of humor peppered his work throughout his career. He was at his best when his humor turned to sarcasm, using it as a deadly weapon in scholarly combat. One critic of the obedience experiments argued that Milgram’s subjects saw through the deception but pretended not to because they did not want to ruin the experiment. Mil-gram (1972) replied, “Orne’s suggestion that the subjects only feigned sweating, trembling, and stuttering to please the experimenter is pathetically detached from reality, equivalent to the statement that hemophiliacs bleed to keep their physicians busy” (p. 140).
Milgram effectively communicated psychological knowledge to the broader public through his writings and interviews. As he did not shy away from appearing in mass-circulation magazines, he was able to reach a wide audience. For example, an excellent concise article about his obedience research appeared in TV Guide to coincide with the airing of The Tenth Level, a television drama based on the obedience experiments. Milgram had an appreciation for the journalist’s craft, and he even edited a book consisting of newspaper and magazine articles on psychological topics meant for the introductory psychology course.
WORKS BY MILGRAM
“Issues in the Study of Obedience: A Reply to Baumrind.” American Psychologist 19 (1964): 848–852.
“Some Conditions of Obedience and Disobedience to Authority.” Human Relations 18 (1965): 57–76. An early summary of many of the conditions in the obedience experiment, it won Milgram the annual Socio-Psychological Award for 1965 from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
“Interpreting Obedience: Error and Evidence (A Reply to Orne and Holland).” In The Social Psychology of Psychological Research, edited by Arthur G. Miller. New York: Free Press, 1972.
Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. Milgram’s most definitive and complete account of his obedience research, together with a less than satisfactory attempt at theorizing about his findings, it was a finalist in the National Book Awards and has been translated into eleven languages.
The Individual in a Social World: Essays and Experiments. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1977. The most complete collection of Milgram’s writings, with connecting narrative added by him. A second edition, appearing posthumously in 1992, was edited by former students John Sabini and Maury Silver and contains articles written after the first edition.
Blass, Thomas. “Understanding Behavior in the Milgram Obedience Experiment: The Role of Personality, Situations, and Their Interactions.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 60 (1991): 398–413. The most complete literature review of the obedience paradigm. Although most of it is accessible to a broad readership, some sections require a background in the social sciences.
_____. The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram. New York: Basic, 2004. The first and to date only comprehensive biography of Milgram. Highly readable, it was named one of the best science books of the year by Discover magazine.
_____. “Stanley Milgram.com.” Informational Web site on Milgram. Available from http://www.stanleymilgram.com.
Kadushin, Charles. “The Small World Method and Other Innovations in Experimental Social Psychology.” In The Small World, edited by Manfred Kochen. Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1989.
Miller, Arthur G. The Obedience Experiments: A Case Study of Controversy in Social Science. New York: Praeger, 1986. A thoughtful and highly readable examination of the obedience experiments, emphasizing the controversies surrounding them.
Milgram, Stanley 1933-1984
Stanley Milgram was born on August 15, 1933, in the Bronx, New York, the second of three children of Samuel and Adele Milgram, who had both emigrated from Eastern Europe around the time of World War I. Samuel was a baker and cake decorator, and Adele assisted him in the bakery, in addition to being a homemaker.
Stanley’s superior intelligence was already discernible in elementary school, and he graduated from James Monroe High School in only three years. While there, one of his extracurricular activities was working on stage-craft—an experience that helped him infuse his experiments with the dramatic elements that made them powerfully realistic experiences for his subjects. He obtained his BA in political science from Queens College. He continued his graduate education in the Department of Social Relations at Harvard University, where Gordon Allport (1897–1967), a leading figure in personality and social psychology, became his mentor and, later, the chairman of his doctoral dissertation, beginning a lifetime relationship of mutual admiration.
During the 1955 to 1956 academic year, Solomon Asch (1907–1996), a social psychologist who was already well known for his groundbreaking research on conformity, came to Harvard as a visiting lecturer, and Allport assigned Milgram to be Asch’s teaching and research assistant. Several years later, in 1959 to 1960, Milgram worked for Asch again, helping him edit a book on conformity at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. As a result of these repeated contacts with Asch, Milgram came to regard him as his main scientific influence.
Milgram was awarded his PhD in social psychology in the spring of 1960, and in the fall began his academic career as an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Yale University. It was there that he conducted his very first and most important experimental work—a series of experiments on obedience to authority.
Although a secular Jew, throughout his lifetime Milgram maintained a strong sense of connectedness to Judaism, which included an identification with the millions of his fellow Jews murdered by the Nazis during World War II. In the speech he wrote and gave at his bar mitzvah celebration in 1946, a year after the end of the war, he said: “As I come of age and find happiness in joining the ranks of Israel, the knowledge of the tragic suffering of my fellow Jews throughout war-torn Europe makes this also a solemn event and an occasion to reflect upon the heritage of my people” (quoted in Blass 2004, p. 8). Milgram’s obedience experiments were clearly motivated by an attempt to shed new light on the horrors of the Holocaust.
In these experiments, conducted from August 1961 to April 1962, subjects were to teach another subject a list of adjective-noun pairs by punishing him with electric shocks of increasing voltage every time he made a mistake, by pressing one of thirty switches on a “shock machine.” Each subsequent switch represented a 15-volt increase in shock intensity—ranging from 15 to 450 volts. What the volunteer subject did not know was that the realistic-looking shock apparatus was merely a prop that did not deliver shocks, that the learner was an accomplice who gave right and wrong answers according to a predetermined schedule, and that the increasingly pitiful screams of the learner were actually scripted, prerecorded complaints. The result: more than 60 percent of the subjects went to the end of the shock scale—that is, ended up fully obedient to the experimenter’s commands to keep increasing the punishment—even after the learner fell silent and, perhaps, lost consciousness. This was the central revelatory finding of the obedience studies—the extreme willingness of individuals to obey an authority who had no coercive means to enforce his commands, to commit acts that were in conflict with their moral principles. A secondary but also important finding was that the amount of obedience varied as a function of changes in the social situation. For example, in one set of experimental variations, Milgram gradually reduced the distance between teacher and learner, which resulted in a corresponding decrease in subjects’ obedience. Altogether, Milgram carried out more than twenty different variations of the obedience experiment.
The results of the Yale experiments led Milgram to conclude that it was unnecessary to invoke sadism or psychopathology to explain the barbaric behavior of Nazi perpetrators and their allies during the Holocaust. They showed, he argued, that “ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.… A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act and without limitations of conscience as long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority” (Milgram 1974, pp. 6, 189).
Milgram’s obedience experiments, whose consequences are still with us today, provoked a controversy that revolved around the ethical aspects of his research methods. Some critics questioned Milgram’s right to expose his subjects to an intensive, stressful experience that they had not anticipated, and to deceive them into believing that they had inflicted painful shocks to, and perhaps had harmed, an innocent victim. In his defense, one can note that Milgram operated in an ethical vacuum; at the time, there were no formal rules about what was permissible in research with human subjects. Also, some months after their participation, Milgram sent his subjects a postexperimental questionnaire that included a question inquiring about their well-being, something which is rarely done in social-psychological research. About 84 percent of his respondents indicated that they were glad to have been in the experiment, and only 1.3 percent said that they were sorry to have participated (see Milgram 1974, p. 195). Nonetheless, during the experiment itself, as Milgram himself noted, “in a large number of cases the degree of tension reached extremes that are rarely seen in sociopsychological laboratory studies” (Milgram 1963, p. 375). The safeguards we have in place today to ensure the welfare of human research subjects, as embodied in the American Psychological Association’s guidelines and federal regulations, can be traced to the concerns evoked by Milgram’s obedience experiments, together with a handful of other ethically questionable studies from the same era.
In the fall of 1963 Milgram returned as an assistant professor to Harvard, where he became involved in two new areas of research. One, already begun at Yale, was the lost-letter technique, which became the most widely used unobtrusive measure of attitudes. The second was the creation of the small-world method (now commonly termed “six degrees of separation”), in which a group of “starters” in one part of the United States were asked to send mailings to a designated stranger in another part of the country, via a chain of acquaintances. Among the completed chains it took a surprisingly small number of intermediaries—about six—to reach the target.
In 1966 Milgram came up for tenure, and—after some lengthy and contentious deliberations by the committee evaluating him—he was turned down. Some committee members still held the ethical indiscretions of the obedience experiments against him. In the fall of 1967 Milgram accepted an offer to head a newly developing doctoral program in social psychology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). There he turned his attention to the systematic study of city life, in particular the norms—the intangible, unspoken rules—that guide everyday social interactions. Among the studies he conducted was one that investigated subway riders’ willingness to give up their seats when asked to (more than 50% did). Another set of studies compared city and small-town residents’ willingness to help strangers.
With the urban environment now Milgram’s “laboratory,” the field experiment became his primary research tool at CUNY, and he contributed to the growth of field experimentation in social psychology by demonstrating how a wide diversity of everyday phenomena could be studied—even within the structural confines of the experimental method. Milgram died of heart failure at the age of 51 on December 20, 1984.
SEE ALSO Authority; Conformity;Ethics in Experimentation; Experiments, Human; Experiments, Shock
Blass, Thomas, ed. 2000. Obedience to Authority: Current Perspectives on the Milgram Paradigm. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Milgram, Stanley, 1963. Behavioral Study of Obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 67: 371–378.
Milgram, Stanley, 1974. Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. New York: Harper and Row.
Milgram, Stanley, 1992. The Individual in a Social World: Essays and Experiments. 2nd ed. Ed. John Sabini and Maury Silver. New York: McGraw-Hill.
American experimental social psychologist known for his innovative experimental techniques.
Stanley Milgram carried out influential and controversial experiments that demonstrated that blind obedience to authority could override moral conscience . His early studies on conformity were the first experiments to compare behavioral differences between people from different parts of the world. Milgram also examined the effects of television violence , studied whether New York City subway riders would give up their seats if asked to do so, and made award-winning documentary films.
Milgram, born in 1933 in the Bronx, New York, was the son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Samuel Milgram, a baker, and Adele Israel. Growing up in the Bronx, with an older sister and a younger brother, Milgram attended James Monroe High School and graduated from Queens College in 1954. He had a majored in political science and planned to enter the School of International Affairs at Columbia University to prepare for the Foreign Service. Instead, he enrolled in Harvard University's new interdisciplinary Department of Social Relations. There, Gordon Allport became his mentor and a series of fellowships enabled him to earn his Ph.D. in social psychology in 1960.
At Harvard, Milgram became Solomon E. Asch's teaching assistant. Asch was applying Gestalt psychology to social relations and designing experiments to examine conformity. For his doctoral research, Milgram spent a year in Norway and a year in France, exploring the cultural differences in conformity. He found that pressure for conformity was greater for Norwegians than for the French. After returning from France, Milgram worked with Asch at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.
Moving to Yale University in 1960, as an assistant professor of psychology, Milgram began his experiments on obedience, with funding from the National Science Foundation. Much to his surprise, he found that 65% of his subjects would inflict what they believed to be painful electric shocks on others, simply because they were told to do so.
Milgram married Alexandra "Sasha" Menkin, a psychiatric social worker, in 1961 and the couple eventually had a daughter and a son. Returning to the Department of Social Relations at Harvard in 1963 as an assistant professor of social psychology, Milgram used his "lost-letter technique" to study people's inclinations to help others when it wasn't required. These experiments examined whether subjects would re-mail lost letters. Milgram also addressed the "small-world problem," determining that any two individuals in the United States could reach each other via an average of five acquaintances.
In 1967, Milgram moved to the Graduate Center of the City University of New York as professor and chairman of the social psychology program. In 1970 he published "The Experience of Living in Cities," which had a major influence on the new field of urban psychology. He also examined how residents of New York and Paris perceived the geographies of their cities. One of Milgram's most unique social experiments, designed to study the effects of television violence, involved an episode of the CBS program "Medical Center," with subjects viewing one of three endings. He found that viewers watching a violent ending were no more likely than others to commit an antisocial act when given the opportunity. He also performed experiments with "cyranoids," intermediaries who communicated with someone using words from a third person. He found, for example, that listeners never suspected that an 11-year-old cyranoid's words were actually those of a 50-year-old professor. In 1980, in the midst of these experiments, Milgram suffered the first of a series of massive heart attacks. He died of his fifth heart attack in New York City in 1984, at the age of 51.
Milgram, Stanley. Obedience to Authority: an Experimental View. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.
Milgram, Stanley. The Individual in a Social World: Essays and Experiments. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1977.
MILGRAM, STANLEY (1933–1984), U.S. social psychologist. Born in New York City, Milgram attended public schools in the Bronx, then earned a bachelor's degree in political science at Queens College in 1954. Convinced by an advisor to change his field of study to psychology, Milgram entered Harvard University, where he studied under Solomon Asch and Gordon Allport, receiving his doctoral degree in social psychology in 1960.
That year Milgram joined the faculty of Yale University as an assistant professor, and in 1961 he began his experiments on obedience to authority. He found, in studies conducted at Linsly-Chittenden Hall, that 65 percent of the subjects (ordinary citizens of New Haven) followed instructions to administer what they believed were harmful, even potentially fatal, electric shocks to an unwilling stranger – simply because they were directed to do so by an authority figure dressed in a lab coat. At the end of the experiment, the subjects were told that the victim did not actually receive shocks. Milgram's findings, released in 1963, were considered alarming; critics, including the American Psychiatric Association, initially questioned the ethics of the experiment. In time, however, Milgram's experiment was considered a milestone in the study of the social aspects of obedience and the primary documentation of what came to be called "situationism," whereby external situations override internal perceptions and moral standards. It is widely regarded as the most powerful experiment ever conducted in social psychology. Milgram, in his work Obedience to Authority (1974), used his findings to explain a range of shocking behavior, from guards in Nazi concentration camps to American soldiers at the My Lai massacre.
Milgram taught at Harvard from 1963 to 1967, where he conducted other noteworthy research, including the lost-letter technique and the "small world" problem, which both concerned the degrees of separation between randomly selected people. The studies gave rise to the popular expression "six degrees of separation."
In 1967 Milgram was named the head of the social psychology doctoral program at the City University of New York. In 1980 he was appointed a distinguished professor at the City University Graduate Center, where he continued to teach until his death in 1984. His research in the 1970s and early 1980s is considered to have established the subfield of urban psychology. Milgram's work continues to be widely cited in psychology textbooks, and its influence on popular culture has extended to a television movie, The Tenth Level (1976), and a Broadway play, Six Degrees of Separation, which was adapted for film in 1993.
[Dorothy Bauhoff (2nd ed.)]