Stanley Milgram was an American social psychologist, researcher, and author. He is best known for his infamous obedience experiment. Milgram’s work contributed significantly to a deeper understanding of human nature and helped to establish ethical standards for future psychology experiments. In 2002, the Review of General Psychology listed Milgram as the 46th most eminent psychologist of the 20th century.
Stanley Milgram's Early Life
Stanley Milgram was born on August 15, 1933, in the Bronx, New York. He was the second of three children born to Samuel and Adele Milgram, working-class Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Milgram’s mother was from Romania and his father, from Hungary. His father was a baker and his mother worked in the bakery.
Samuel and Adele Milgram were hardworking people who impressed upon their children the importance of education and having a profession. Milgram’s sister, Marjorie, was a year and a half older than he was, and his brother, Joel, was five years younger. Stanley enjoyed a very close relationship with Joel, who was always proud of his older brother’s achievements.
The Milgram family lived in a neighbourhood that consisted primarily of Jewish immigrants. As a child, Milgram had very little interaction with, or knowledge about, the non-Jewish world. The year of his birth was also the year Adolf Hitler took control of Germany, and with the rise of Nazism, his parents became increasingly concerned about the welfare of their Jewish relatives in Europe. Milgram witnessed their constant worry and as a boy, often huddled with them around the radio listening anxiously to news about the war that had broken out in Europe.
The events in Europe had a significant impact on Milgram, who identified with the suffering of his fellow Jews at the hands of the Nazis. In his bar mitzvah speech, he reflected on their tragic fate and referred to it as part of his own heritage. His concern over the Jewish community in Europe remained with him long into adulthood and even helped to shape his famous obedience experiments.
As a boy, Milgram displayed above-average intelligence. He shied away from sports and while other children played in the streets, he spent his time exploring science. He was gifted a chemistry set by an older cousin and enjoyed mixing different chemicals together and observing the reaction. On one occasion, he and his friends lowered a container of sodium into the Bronx River and the resulting explosion caused fire engines to rush to the site.
Milgram attended James Monroe High School in the Bronx, where he became classmates with another future prominent psychologist, Philip Zimbardo. His primary focus during this time was on getting into college and excelling academically. Milgram was a member of Arista, an honor society, and served as an editor for the school paper. He also had an interest in drama and assisted with stagecraft for his school’s productions.
After completing high school, Milgram attended Queens College, which later became part of the City University of New York (CUNY). While there, he was appointed vice president of the International Relations Club and the Debating Club. He graduated in 1954 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. By that time, however, Milgram had become dissatisfied with the philosophical nature of political science. His interest shifted to social psychology which he believed offered a more practical approach to the issues that were of interest to him. For example, he wanted to better understand how Hitler was able to seize control of Germany and initiate the Holocaust.
Milgram applied for graduate studies in social psychology at Harvard but was initially rejected as he had no background in psychology. Determined to pursue his goal, he signed up for several psychology courses during the summer of 1954 at three different institutions - Hunter College, Brooklyn College, and New York University. He was later admitted to Harvard in the fall of that year and was awarded a Ford Foundation fellowship to pursue his studies. He graduated with a PhD in social psychology in 1960.
Several faculty members at Harvard had a significant impact on Milgram’s academic and professional career, including prominent psychologists Jerome Bruner, Gordon Allport, and Roger Brown. His greatest scientific influence, however, was Solomon Asch, who served as a visiting lecturer at Harvard from 1955 to 1956. During that time, Milgram worked as Asch’s teaching and research assistant, getting a firsthand view of his experiments.
Milgram was particularly interested in Asch’s conformity studies and adapted Asch’s methods to a study of cross-cultural differences in conformity between Norway and France. He spent eighteen months between Oslo and Paris conducting this research which served as the basis of his doctoral dissertation. The study was completed under the direction of Gordon Allport. Between 1959 and 1960, Milgram took a part time job as a research (and editing) assistant to Asch at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.
After completing his PhD, Milgram was offered a position as assistant professor of social psychology at Yale University, where his research focus shifted to the subject of obedience. In 1963, he accepted a similar position in Harvard’s social relations department but was unable to secure tenure at that university. Disappointed by this fact, he left Harvard in 1967 and joined the faculty at CUNY as professor and head of their social psychology graduate program. He did not plan on staying at CUNY for more than five years as he had hopes of working at a more prestigious university. However, the experience turned out to be much better than he had anticipated, and he remained there for the rest of his career.
Milgram’s Obedience Experiment
Milgram conducted his highly influential and controversial obedience experiment while he was an assistant professor at Yale University. Milgram was inspired to design his experiments after Adolf Eichmann, one of the organizers of the Holocaust, was captured in 1960 by Israeli intelligence agents in Argentina. Eichmann was forced to stand trial in Israel in 1961, fifteen years after he escaped from a detention camp at the end of World War II. Like several other Nazi officers who stood trial for war crimes in Nuremberg in 1946, the basis of Eichmann’s defence was that he was just following orders from his superiors.
Milgram began his obedience experiment in July 1961, a year after Eichmann’s trial ended. He was interested in the reasons presented by the defense to justify the acts of genocide committed by the Nazis. Could it be that these Nazi officers were nothing more than obedient soldiers carrying out the grisly orders given to them by authority figures? Milgram wanted to find out.
The obedience experiment was designed to show the extent to which regular people would obey orders if it meant seriously hurting another person. Milgram attracted male subjects by running an ad in a local newspaper and had them draw lots to see if they would play the role of “teacher” or “learner” in an experiment to improve memory. The draw was rigged so that the subject was always assigned the role of the teacher. Unknown to the teacher, the learner was actually working with Milgram and was fully aware of the real purpose of the study.
At the start of the experiment, the teacher watched as the learner was taken to a room, strapped securely to a chair, and fitted with electrodes. The teacher was then taken to a second room and seated in front of an electric shock generator. There were thirty switches on the shock generator and they were labeled from 15 volts (Slight Shock) to 375 volts (Danger: Severe Shock) to 450 volts (XXX). The fact that no real electric shocks were involved in the study was kept secret from the teacher. An experimenter (or authority figure) was also present in the room with the teacher to help direct the experiment. Only a screen separated the room with the learner from the second room with the teacher and the experimenter.
The learner was required to learn a list of word pairs. The teacher was asked to test the learner by presenting a word on the list and asking for the matching word from four possible choices. For each incorrect answer, the teacher was told to administer a shock of increasing voltage.
The learner intentionally gave wrong answers on the word tests. As a result, the teacher was required to shock the learner for each wrong answer while increasing the voltage each time. As the “shocks” increased in voltage, the teacher was able to hear the learner banging on the wall, screaming, protesting, and begging from the adjoining room. If the teacher refused to shock the learner any further, the experimenter (authority figure) would give the teacher a simple order to continue the experiment.
There were four orders or prods that the experimenter used. If the first order was not obeyed, the experimenter gave the next order on the list. If the second order was also ignored by the teacher, the experimenter moved to the third order, and then the fourth if necessary. These orders included:
- Please continue.
- The experiment requires you to continue.
- It is absolutely essential that you continue
- You have no other choice but to continue
The experimenter also assured the teacher that he (the experimenter) would assume full responsibility for anything that happened. The experiment was stopped if (1) the teacher refused to shock the learner after the fourth prod from the experimenter, or (2) if the teacher gave three 450 volt shocks to the learner.
In Milgram’s obedience experiment all the subjects (teachers) administered shocks of up to 300 volts. Although many were reluctant, 65% of the subjects maintained their obedience to the experimenter and administered the highest possible shock of 450 volts. The experiment was repeated several times with consistent results.
Milgram proposed two theories to explain why normal people would obey an order even if it meant they may severely hurt or kill another person. These are:
- The Theory of Conformism - A person who is not an expert in a particular field will leave decision making to the group he or she belongs to.
- The Agentic State Theory - A person may view himself or herself as nothing more than a tool or agent to carry out the wishes of someone else. This means that the agent no longer assumes responsibility for his or her actions. Once the agent accepts this change in perspective, obedience is likely to follow.
Variations of Milgram’s obedience experiment showed that the teacher was more likely to obey instructions to shock the learner if the learner was in a completely separate room. Milgram believed the incremental manner of increasing the shocks also contributed to obedience. Before conducting the experiment, Milgram conducted a poll among the psychology students at Yale to predict what the outcome of the experiment would be. Very few people, including Milgram, expected any of the subjects to administer the most intense shock.
The Lost-Letter Technique
Milgram developed the lost letter technique in April 1963. He hypothesized that people who live in large cities were less responsive to the needs of their fellow man than people who live in small towns. Milgram also wanted to measure people’s attitudes towards various organizations in the country. To test his hypothesis, Milgram and his colleagues left sealed letters in public that were addressed to “Medical Research Associates,” “Friends of the Nazi Party,” “Friends of the Communist Party,” and an individual by the name of “Mr. Walter Carnup.”
While 70% of the letters addressed to the medical facility and the letters to Mr. Carnup were posted, the other letters caused quite a stir in the community. For example, several of the letters addressed to the “Friends of the Nazi Party” were sent to the FBI for fingerprinting. Milgram tried to conduct a second lost-letter experiment in 1964 by dropping the letters from an airplane. However, many of the letters landed on rooftops, in trees, and in rivers, so he was forced to abort the study.
The Small World Problem
In 1967, Milgram designed the “small-world experiment.” He was curious about how many acquaintances it took to connect two people who didn’t know each other. To find the answer, he sent packages to 160 random people in Omaha, Nebraska, with instructions to send the package to someone they knew who they thought could get it closer to its final destination—a stock broker in Boston, Massachusetts. Along with the package, each original sender was also asked to forward the same set of instructions they had received.
By the time the packages arrived in Boston, some chains had as many as ten acquaintances while others had as few as two. Milgram concluded that there were five acquaintances (or six degrees of separation) between the original senders in Omaha and the final recipient in Boston.
Applications of Milgram’s Obedience Theory
Although it was already well known that people have a tendency to obey authority figures, Milgram’s experiment showed that, in certain settings, individuals may obey destructive orders that conflict with their moral principles and do things they would never decide to do on their own. Milgram believed that once these individuals allowed an authority figure to direct their actions, they also gave up the responsibility of distinguishing what was right from what was wrong.
The findings from Milgram’s obedience experiment have been applied to several fields. Some of these include:
- Criminal justice - to explain why people may commit atrocities if they are placed in certain social contexts. Milgram’s findings have resulted in some condemned criminals receiving life imprisonment rather than the death penalty.
- Counseling - to give people deeper insight into themselves and help them to understand why and how their behavior can change.
- Business - to help workers to recognize unethical demands that may be place on them by their employers
- Law Enforcement - to help people to think for themselves rather than agreeing with everything a police officer says or suggests.
Milgram’s obedience experiment also sheds light on actions people can take to resist unwanted pressure from authority figures. These actions include:
- Questioning the legitimacy of the authority figure
- Asking yourself if you would take the suggested action of your own initiative
- Resisting the urge to comply with small demands that make you uncomfortable because they may escalate to larger demands.
- Finding an ally in your social group who agrees with your view as being a lone dissenter can be very difficult without social support.
Criticisms of Milgram’s Theory
Despite making a major cultural and scholarly impact, the Milgram Obedience Experiment is one of the most widely criticized psychology studies in history. It has been criticized for three primary reasons:
Ethics - many critics claim the experiment was unethical because it caused many of the subjects to experience severe distress. Some subjects were seen sweating and trembling due to their discomfort but were told to continue the experiment. Also, Milgram did not debrief the subjects immediately after their participation ended. The subjects were not informed about the true intentions of the study and Milgram did not explain why deception was necessary.
Suggested Relevance to the Holocaust - Milgram claimed he was able to mimic the psychological processes that were at play during the Holocaust in his experiment. However, some critics have pointed out several key differences between the events of the Holocaust and Milgram’s obedience experiment such as (1) Holocaust perpetrators knew they were killing innocent people while subjects in the experiment were assured before the study that no permanent physical damage would be done, (2) Holocaust perpetrators were motivated by racism while subjects in the experiment did not know the identity of their learners, (3) Holocaust perpetrators had a clear goal to exterminate Jewish people while subjects in the experiment were often reluctant to continue, and (4) the Holocaust lasted for years and allowed perpretrators enough time to assess their morals while Milgram’s experiment lasted only an hour with little time for the subjects to think deeply about the consequences of their actions.
Validity - some critics are disturbed by discrepancies between what the experiment described and what actually happened. One critic, psychologist Gina Perry, believed Milgram intentionally manipulated the data he collected to make the results appear more impressive.
Books, Awards, and Accomplishments
- Milgram wrote several books that describe his various experiments. They include:
- Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View, 1974
- Television and Antisocial Behavior: Field Experiments, 1974
- The Individual in a Social World: Essays and Experiments, 1977
- He also produced the films Obedience (1965) and The City and the Self (1972).
- Milgram's other awards and accomplishments include:
- Awarded the prize for Behavioral Science Research by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1964
- Elected member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science
- Elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
- Elected member of the American Psychological Association
In January 1961, Milgram met Alexandra Menkin at a party in Manhattan and the two got married in December of that year. Alexandra, who Milgram fondly called Sasha, was a social worker and spent much of her time assisting Holocaust survivors. The couple had two children, Michele and Marc, and Milgram enjoyed playing with, and caring for them.
Milgram was very much invested in his family and set aside time for them in the evenings and on weekends. They went on frequent outings to museums, parks and the movies, and took annual trips to destinations in the Caribbean, United States, Europe, Israel, and Morocco. Milgram insisted on having his wife by his side while watching television and enjoyed taking her out to gourmet restaurants. He also enjoyed playing board games like chess and Monopoly with his family.
Milgram also gave generously of his time and energy to students, colleagues, and even strangers, responding to virtually all of the many letters he received. He developed several interests outside of academia, including painting, drawing, music composition, and film-making. At home, he would develop fictional plot lines for movies in which his children performed as the stars. He also wrote children’s stories and poems and in his later years, became more keenly interested in the religious and spiritual aspects of the Jewish faith.
Milgram maintained his interest in science and tried to keep abreast of the latest scientific breakthroughs and the scientists behind them. He also spent a great deal of time thinking of and carefully recording various inventions and games. Among these was a machine for rewinding carbon ribbons used in typewriters and a board game centered on the world of art, including auctions and collections.
In 1980, Milgram experienced the first of several major heart attacks. He died of his fifth heart attack in 1984. He was 51 years of age.
American Psychological Association. (2004). Obeying and resisting malevolent orders. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/research/action/order
Blass, T. (1996). Stanley Milgram: A life of inventiveness and controversy. In G. A. Kimble, C. A. Boneau, & M. Wertheimer (Eds.), Portraits of pioneers in psychology: Volume 2 (pp.315-331). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Korn, J. H. (1997). Illusions of reality: A history of deception in social psychology. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Milgram, A. (2000). My personal view of Stanley Milgram. In T. Blass (Ed.), Obedience to authority: Current perspectives on the Milgram paradigm (pp.1-7). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum
Perry, G. (2013). Behind the shock machine: The untold story of the notorious Milgram psychology experiments. New York: The New Press.
Rogers, K. (n.d.). Stanley Milgram. In Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Stanley-Milgram/Later-experiments-and-publications
Stanley Milgram. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://psychology.fas.harvard.edu/people/stanley-milgram