The Man Who Shocked The World
Thomas Blass probes into the life of Stanley Milgram, the man who uncovered some disturbing truths about human nature.
By Thomas Blass published March 1, 2002 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Linsly-Chittenden Hall on Yale's old campus is easy to miss—an improbable hybrid of Romanesque and neo-Gothic styles that sits in the shadow of the magnificent clock-arch straddling High Street. But in July 1961, the building hummed with an unusual amount of activity as people came and went through its doors at hourly intervals. The increased traffic was due to the arrival and departure of participants in an experiment with unexpected findings that would make it one of the most significant—and controversial—psychological studies of the 20th century.
The research was the brainchild of 28-year-old Stanley Milgram, then a recent graduate with a Ph.D. in social psychology from Harvard's department of social relations. The name Stanley Milgram may not elicit the kind of instant recognition as, say, Sigmund Freud. And though he was something of a Renaissance man, making films and writing poetry, Stanley Milgram was no Sigmund Freud: He did not attempt an all-encompassing theory of behavior; no school of thought bears his name. But what he did do—rather than probe the interior of the human psyche—was to try to expose the external social forces that, though subtle, have surprisingly powerful effects on our behavior.
Milgram's research; like Freud's, did lead to profound revisions in some of the fundamental assumptions about human nature. Indeed, by the fall of 1963, the results of Milgram's research were making headlines. He found that an average, presumably normal group of New Haven, Connecticut, residents would readily inflict very painful and perhaps even harmful electric shocks on innocent victims.
The subjects believed they were part of an experiment supposedly dealing with the relationship between punishment and learning. An experimenter—who used no coercive powers beyond a stern aura of mechanical and vacant-eyed efficiency—instructed participants to shock a learner by pressing a lever on a machine each time the learner made a mistake on a word-matching task. Each subsequent error led to an increase in the intensity of the shock in 15-volt increments, from 15 to 450 volts.
In actuality, the shock box was a well-crafted prop and the learner an actor who did not actually get shocked. The result: A majority of the subjects continued to obey to the end—believing they were delivering 450 volt shocks—simply because the experimenter commanded them to. Although subjects were told about the deception afterward, the experience was a very real and powerful one for them during the laboratory hour itself.
That year, the headline of an article in the October 26 issue of The New York Times blared, "Sixty-five Percent in Test Blindly Obey Order to Inflict Pain." A week later the St. Louis Post-Dispatch also informed its readers about the experiments—in an editorial lambasting Milgram and Yale for the ordeal they put their subjects through. That article marked the beginning of an enduring ethical controversy stirred up by the experiments that sometimes overshadowed the substance of the findings.
Those groundbreaking and controversial experiments have had—and continue to have—long-lasting significance. They demonstrated with jarring clarity that ordinary individuals could be induced to act destructively even in the absence of physical coercion, and humans need not be innately evil or aberrant to act in ways that are reprehensible and inhumane. While we would like to believe that when confronted with a moral dilemma we will act as our conscience dictates, Milgram's obedience experiments teach us that in a concrete situation with powerful social constraints, our moral sense can easily be trampled.
Stanley Milgram was born in New York City on August 15, 1933, the second of three children. His parents had emigrated from Europe; his father was an expert cake baker, and his mother worked in the bakery.
Milgram's best friend and classmate was Bernard Fried, who went on to become a world-famous parasitologist. Fried recalls that Milgram "was exceptional in all subjects. One could not have predicted early on what he would do, because he was just as good in the arts as in the sciences." At James Monroe High School in New York City, Milgram was a member of Arista, the honor society, and became editor of the Science Observer, a school newspaper. He also worked on stagecraft for the school's theatrical productions—an experience he would later draw on to infuse his obedience experiments with the dramatic elements that made them such gripping, realistic experiences for his subjects.
After majoring in political science at Queens College in New York City, Milgram applied to the Ph.D. program at Harvard's department of social relations. He was rejected because he had not taken a single psychology course at Queens. Milgram was, however, encouraged to reapply—and was accepted—as a special student for the fall of 1954. To make up for his deficiencies in psychology coursework, he took six undergraduate courses during the summer at three New York-area colleges. He did so well his first year at Harvard that the following year his status was changed to that of a regular student.
The person at Harvard with whom Milgram had been corresponding regarding admission was Gordon Allport, the head of the social relations department's graduate programs. One of the most eminent psychologists of the 20th century, Allport was to become the most important person in Milgram's academic life. Their initial exchange of letters set the tone for their relationship as student and mentor.
Allport would be a constant source of encouragement for Milgram, and he had a bemused admiration for Milgram's limitless drive and persistence in the face of obstacles. But when Allport felt the necessity, he knew how much pressure to apply to Milgram without provoking his resistance. Milgram, in turn, was always deferential enough to Allport to get his way without seeming too pushy. And when it came time to do his dissertation, Milgram asked Allport to be his chairman because of his open mentoring style. Rather than expecting his doctoral students to hitch a ride on one of his research projects, Allport let them be themselves and pursue their own interests.
Milgram's dissertation was a cross-cultural comparison of conformity performed in Norway and France between 1957 and 1959. He used an adaptation of a technique invented by the social psychologist Solomon Asch. In 1955 Asch had come to Harvard as a visiting lecturer, and Milgram was assigned to be his teaching and research assistant. Milgram became intimately familiar with Asch's conformity experiments. In these experiments, a subject, seated among seven others, had to indicate which one of three lines was equal in length to a fourth line. The other seven, however, were in cahoots with Asch and intentionally gave incorrect matches during some of the trials. Asch found that a naive subject yielded to the will of the bogus majority about one-third of the time.
Milgram modified Asch's procedure, using sound rather than visual stimuli: In each trial, subjects had to indicate which of a pair of tones was longer.
In addition, Milgram used a simulated majority to create peer pressure—before giving an answer the naive subject heard tape-recorded answers from five other subjects (they were not physically present in the lab, although the subject believed they were). In his dissertation, Milgram wryly explained the advantages of this procedure, "The group is always willing to perform in the laboratory at the experimenter's convenience, and personalities on tape demand no replay royalties."
It was an ambitious study, involving almost 400 subjects. Overall, Milgram found the Norwegians to be more conforming than the French participants. In 1959 and 1960, he worked for Asch at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, helping him edit a book on conformity. During his spare time, Milgram wrote his dissertation. As a result of their association there and at Harvard, Milgram considered Asch to be his most important scientific influence.
In June 1960, Milgram received his Ph.D., and that fall he began at Yale as an assistant professor in the department of psychology. That first semester, he carried out pilot studies on obedience with his students and began the formal series of experiments in the summer of 1961, with grant support from the National Science Foundation. Going beyond Asch's conformity research, Milgram wondered whether it would be possible to demonstrate the power of social influence with something more consequential than simple line judgments.
Under the Influence
It wasn't just Asch's work that influenced Milgram. Milgram's interest in the study of obedience also emerged out of a continuing identification with the suffering of fellow Jews at the hands of the Nazis and an attempt to fathom how the Holocaust could have happened. A poignant illustration of this can be found in a letter Milgram wrote from France to his schoolmate John Shaffer in the fall of 1958:
My true spiritual home is Central Europe, not France, the Mediterranean countries, England, Scandinavia or Northern Germany, but that area which is bounded by the cities of Munich, Vienna and Prague .... I should have been born into the German-speaking Jewish community of Prague in 1922 and died in a gas chamber some 20 years later. How I came to be born in the Bronx Hospital, I'll never quite understand.
During a period of a year, Milgram conducted more than 20 variations of the basic experiment to see how changing aspects of the experimental situation might alter subjects' willingness to obey. Four days after Milgram's last participant was studied, the Israeli government, after a lengthy trial, hanged Adolf Eichmann for his role in the murder of 6 million Jews. The action seemed to anticipate the important role Milgram's experiments would come to play in debates about how to account for the behavior of the Nazi perpetrators.
In all, Milgram spent three years at Yale. In January 1961, he met Alexandra "Sasha" Menkin at a party in Manhattan. After a year of courtship, they were married. And in the fall of 1963, as his experiment results were made public, Milgram was invited back to Harvard's social relations department as an assistant professor.
But he was never granted tenure. Some of the opposition toward Milgram came from colleagues who felt uneasy about him, ascribing to him certain negative properties of the obedience experiment. Being banished from academia's Eden was a very painful experience for Milgram. In 1967, he accepted an offer to head the social psychology program at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY) as a full professor—skipping the associate professor level—and remained there until he died from his fifth heart attack in 1984.
After the obedience experiments, Milgram continued to pioneer inventive research. For example, at Harvard, he devised a method for studying the "small world" effect. Individuals in one U.S. city were given the job of sending a packet to a particular stranger in a different part of the country via the acquaintances they knew on a first-name basis. Surprisingly, it took only some six intermediaries to reach the target stranger. Milgram published the first article about these findings in the premier issue of Psychology Today in May 1967. Milgram also conducted a study of the effects of TV on antisocial behavior and helped launch the psychological study of urban life with the publication of his article, "The Experience of Living in Cities," in Science magazine.
Despite the variety of research Milgram produced, his obedience studies continue to overshadow his other work. Milgram's book Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View has been translated into 11 languages. The wide interest in his experiments has transcended the usual disciplinary boundaries. In fact, the influence of this research goes beyond academia, permeating contemporary culture and thought. There is a French-German punk-rock group named Milgram. In 1986, musician Peter Gabriel, an admirer of Milgram, recorded a song titled, "We Do What We're Told."
Milgram's experiments have also captured the dramatic imagination. In 1973, British playwright Dannie Abse produced a play, The Dogs of Pavlov, inspired by the research. Since then, at least a half-dozen plays have been written or are currently in progress, based on the obedience studies. And in 1976, CBS aired a film, The Tenth Level, starring William Shatner as a Milgram-like character.
Milgram's warning—that when an individual "merges...into an organizational structure, a new creature replaces autonomous man, unhindered by the limitations of individual morality, freed of human inhibition, mindful only of the sanctions of authority"—has much resonance. Professionals in fields as varied as nursing, marketing, accounting and management have inferred practical lessons from Milgram's obedience studies.
Legal scholarship has also drawn heavily on the obedience studies and their implications. For example, Steven Hartwell, a law professor at the University of San Diego, conducted an educational exercise for his students in which they were to individually advise litigants in a small-claims court. He told his students that he would be available in an adjacent office if they needed to consult with him. Hartwell writes:
The "clients" were, in fact, a single confederate who sought the same advice from each student: how she should present her side of a rent dispute. I told each student to advise the client to lie under oath that she had paid the rent. When students asked for clarification, I uniformly responded, "...My advice is that, if your client wants to win her case, then you must tell her to perjure herself."… We wanted them to experience the pull between loyalty to authority… and prescribed ethical conduct … Although many of the 24 participating students grumbled either to me or to the client about my proffered advice, 23 told their client to perjure herself.
We didn't need Milgram to tell us we have a tendency to obey orders. What we didn't know before Milgram's experiments is just how powerful this tendency is. And having been enlightened about our extreme readiness to obey authorities, we can try to take steps to guard ourselves against unwelcome or reprehensible commands.
One important place where the lessons of Milgram's work have been taken seriously and acted upon is in the U.S. Army. Milgram's research and its implications are discussed in two mandatory psychology courses at the U.S. Military Academy. In 1985, the head of the academy's department of behavioral sciences and leadership wrote, "One of the desired outcomes of this is that our future military leaders will be fully cognizant not only of their authority but also of their responsibility to make decisions that are well considered and morally sound."
What accounts for the far-flung influence of Milgram's obedience experiments? I believe it has to do with how, in his demonstration of our powerful propensity to obey authority, Milgram has identified one of the universals of social behavior, one that transcends both time and place: conformity. And people intuitively sense this.
I have carried out two data analyses that provide at least some evidence to back up this assertion. In one, I correlated the results of Milgram's standard obedience experiments and the replications conducted by others with their dates of publication. The results: There was absolutely no relationship between when a study was conducted and the amount of obedience it yielded. In a second analysis, I compared the outcomes of obedience experiments conducted in the U.S. with those conducted in other countries. Remarkably, the average obedience rates were very similar: In the U.S. studies, some 61 percent of the subjects were fully obedient, while elsewhere the obedience rate was 66 percent.
It is fitting that, in an article about Milgram, he should have the last word on this matter. In a letter to Alan Elms, a former student at Yale (now on the faculty of the University of California at Davis) dated September 25, 1973, Milgram wrote:
"We do not observe compliance to authority merely because it is a transient cultural or historical phenomenon, but because it flows from the logical necessities of social organization. If we are to have social life in any organized form—that is to say, if we are to have society—then we must have members of society amenable to organizational imperatives."
For more information, see stanleymilgram.com.