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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 stagecraft—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.
- Blass, 2004. The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram. New York: Basic Books.
- Blass, Thomas, 2000. Obedience to Authority: Current Perspectives on the Milgram Paradigm. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Milgram, Stanley, Behavioral Study of Obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 67: 371–378.
- Milgram, Stanley, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. New York: Harper and Row.
- Milgram, Stanley, The Individual in a Social World: Essays and Experiments. 2nd ed. Ed. John Sabini and Maury Silver. New York: McGraw-Hill.
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