Stanley Milgram

| Biography | Obedience to Authority | Six Degrees of Separation |  |Experimental Ethics | Historical Research |



Stanley Milgram was born on August 15, 1933, in New York City, and was the middle of three children.  Milgram attended James Monroe High School in New York City, and was a member of the honor society, Arista, and became the editor of the school newspaper, the Science Observer.  He was also involved in his schools theater productions, which later influenced the realistic experiences his subjects underwent in his experiments.  Stanley Milgram attended Queens College in New York City and majored in political science.  He then applied to Harvard’s department of social relations Ph.D. program, but was rejected on the basis of never having any experience in psychology.  He was later accepted when he reapplied, after taking 6 undergraduate courses in psychology.  His dissertation was on cross-cultural comparisons of conformity, implemented in Norway and France in the years 1957-1959, where he used a version of a technique developed by psychologist Solomon Asch.  Milgram later was assigned to Asch as a research assistant, and became quite familiar with his conformity experiments.  Milgram received his Ph.D. in June of 1960, and became an assistant professor at Yale the following fall.  Stanley Milgram received grant support from the National Science Foundation, and went far beyond Asch’s conformity research, and conducted experiments to determine the power of social influence.

Obedience to Authority                                                    


Milgram’s obedience to authority experiment countered the participant’s moral beliefs against the demands of authority.  For this study, Milgram took out a newspaper ad that offered $4.50 for one hour of work, at Yale University, for a psychology experiment that sought to investigate memory and learning.  Participants were told that the study would look at the relationship of punishment in learning, and that one person would be the teacher, and the other would be the learner (a confederate), and that these roles would be determined by a random drawing.  The learner was then strapped into a chair, and electrodes are attached to their arm.  It was explained to both the teacher and the learner that the electrodes were attached to an electric shock generator, and that shocks would serve as punishment for incorrect answers.  The experimenter then states that the shocks will be painful, but that they will not cause any permanent tissue damage, while in reality no shocks would actually be received.  The teacher and learner are then divided into separate rooms.  

The experimenter shows the teacher the shock generator, which has 30 switches, with a voltage ranging from 15-450 volts, and are labeled from “slight shock” to “danger: severe shock,” and the last switch labeled “XXX.”  The teacher is told that it is their job to teach the learner a simple paired associate task, and that they must punish the learner for incorrect answers, by increasing the shock 15 volts each time.  The teacher was then given a 15 volt shock to show that the generator was actually working.  When the experiment begins, the learner found the task to be difficult and made various mistakes, which resulted in increasing intensity of the shocks.  When the machine reached 75, 90, and 105 volts, the teacher could hear the learner grunting through the wall, and at 120 volts the learner claimed that the shocks were getting painful, and at 150 volts he screamed, “get me out of here! I refuse to go on.”  When the teacher questioned progressing, the experimenter said things such as, “you can’t stop now,” or “the experiment depends on your continuing compliance.”  As the shock voltage increased the learner cried out, “I can’t stand the pain,” at 300 volts the learner began to pound on the wall and demanded to be let out.  When the machine reached 330 volts there was no longer any noise coming from the learner.  The experimenter then told the teacher that his lack of response was to be considered as an incorrect answer, and that shocks were to still be administered.  The experiment concludes when the highest shock level is reached.

Milgram found that 65% of participants would render shock levels of 450 volts, and that these were everyday normal people.  In the post-experiment interview, Milgram asked the participants to rate how painful they thought the shocks were, the typical answer was extremely painful.  Most of the subjects obeyed the experimenter, however the subjects did show obvious signs of an internal struggle, and demonstrated reactions such as nervous laughter, trembling, and groaning.  These interviews confirmed that everyday normal people can cause pain and suffering to another person, under the right set of circumstances.  Milgram also found the tendency of the teacher to devalue the learner, by saying such phrases as, “he is so dumb he deserves to get shocked,” which helped to interally justify the teachers behavior of continuing to administer the shocks. This experiment by Milgram has given a tremendous amount of insight into human behavior and obedience. 

Six Degrees of Separation

Stanley Milgram devised an experiment in the late 1960s to test the small-world problem.  Milgram gave 300 letters to participants in Boston and Omaha, along with instructions to deliver them to one particular target person by mailing the letter to an acquaintance they considered to be closer to the target.  That person then got the same set of instructions, which therefore, set up a chain.  Milgram found that the average length of these chains was about six.  Since then, Milgram’s small-world problem has become a cultural phenomenon, but until recently very little research has been done since Milgram's initial study.

Experimental Ethics

Stanley Milgram’s study of obedience was controversial and raised many ethical concerns.  The subjects in this study were deceived and led to believe they were actually administering electrical shocks to a person who would yell out in pain.  The subjects applied the shocks, with an increasingly higher voltage simply because authority commanded them to do so.  Each time, the recipient of the shocks, who was merely an actor, would protest pitifully, asking them to stop.  Findings of this study showed that 65% of the subjects obeyed the commands and gave shocks up to 450 volts.  The problem with this experiment was that it was extremely stressful on the subjects, and could have traumatized them.  They were hurting an innocent person they didn’t even know who had informed them of a heart condition.  Although wanting to stop the experiment due to the protesting and even screaming recipient of the shocks, the subjects were urged by the experimenter to continue.  This experiment was very powerful and although it was unethical, the findings were important to the study of obedience.

References to historical research

The phenomenon of Stanley Milgram can be traced back to Max Wertheimer and the Gestalt psychology, who was the predecessor to Stanley Asch, who Milgram studied under.  Wertheimer concentrated on the optical illusion of apparent movement.  By using a tachistoscope, or a device that projects images onto a screen for measured fractions of a second, Wertheimer was able to investigate visual stimuli.  Studies in Wundt's Laboratory showed the distinction between real movement and apparent movement.  Also, for both of these, one was able to produce “negative afterimages” or a tendency to see stationary objects as moving in the direction opposite to that of a moving object that had been observed immediately before. 

  Solomon Asch was the mentor of Stanley Milgram during his time at Princeton.  Asch explored gestalt, relation-oriented approaches to perception, association, learning, thinking, and metaphor.  Asch was also concerned with social psychology, which was also an interest of Stanley Milgram.  Asch studied conformity and had completed a study of conformity that required subjects to select lines that were judged to be the same size.  These correct choices that would have been made were offset by counterfeit alternatives which were selected by confederates.  Milgram later changed the design from lines to shocks and conducted his studies on obedience to authority.   From the Asch phenomenon came Milgram’s  famous, yet controversial study on obedience