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Stanley Milgram & The Shock Heard Around the World

Next to Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, Stanley Milgram’s obedience studies are arguably the most famous, influential and controversial of psychology experiments.

The obedience studies started in 1961 at Yale University when Milgram was just a 27-year-old assistant professor. Muzafer Sherif, also a pioneer in social psychology who conducted experiments at a summer camp to test intergroup conflict, remarked that: “Milgram’s obedience experiment is the single greatest contribution to human knowledge ever made by the field of social psychology, perhaps psychology in general.”

At the time, before Sherif and Milgram’s experiments, researchers believed that individuals who inflicted harm on others, particularly the horrific acts of the Holocaust, were somehow different from the “normal” public. Much of the research concentrated on exploring the authoritarian personality.

But Milgram believed otherwise.

5 Comments to
Stanley Milgram & The Shock Heard Around the World

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  1. Beautifully written with depth and accuracy. Thank for the thoughtful description and history!

  2. Margarita, your last paragraph refers to the “flaws in Milgram’s experiments”–which implies that Milgram didn’t grasp the many factors which might have been responsible for his particular startling and disturbing results, that he didn’t understand that changing any one of many elements would have caused the subjects to refuse to proceed with the shocks to a much greater degree,and that it was only subsequent researchers like Burger who demonstrated these notions.

    NOTHING COULD BE FURTHER FROM THE TRUTH! Milgram, in actuality, did a very lengthy series of experiments exploring an enormous range of variations on the original set-up. I recommend his wonderful book, “Obedience to Authority”, written in 1974, which will enable you to appreciate that Milgram was FULLY COGNIZANT THAT EVERY NUANCE OF THE SET-UP MIGHT HAVE AN EFFECT ON THE OUTCOME, AND HE DESIGNED VARIATIONS THAT TESTED ALMOST ALL OF THEM.

    Margarita, I started to list a few examples, but I quickly deleted them because I saw I couldn’t do justice to the extreme care Milgram took in exploring all the variables. Read Milgram’s book and you’ll be dazzled by his thoroughness and imagination in devising alternate set-ups. And in some of these scenarios compliance was dramatically reduced– two examples are a)when the subject was required to physically hold the ‘victim’s” hand in place in order to administer the shock, and b)when the “experimenter” was replaced by an ‘ordinary man’–actually a confederate who was posing as just another subject.

    Burger lists four elements that influenced the level of compliance that Milgram didn’t explore– which I gather is the basis for your calling the experiments “flawed”. Why didn’t Milgram vary these elements? Because Milgram was essentially investigating why ordinary Germans had implemented the exterminations of the Holocaust. Every ‘unvaried’ aspect of Milgram’s experiments that Burger said played a role in achieving greater obedience, if altered in the way Burger implied they should have been, would have resulted in a set-up totally at odds not only with the situation Germans were in under the Nazis, but at odds with MOST REAL-WORLD SITUATIONS where people are pressured to do anti-social acts!

  3. Thank you Barth for the recommendation of the book and your thoughtful response.
    Research that would be harder to do, but something which seems obvious to me is that this has to do with the developmental stage of separation/ individuation. If an adult has been supported in this, and can think for themselves, take autonomous decisions, they are more likely to be a refuser of unethical instructions.
    So one can guess that much of the attrocities in the world have some roots based around principles that have to do with adults that have not become fully adult and fully human in varying degrees.

  4. Here is a modern version that is being used for a WorkSafe campaign .

  5. I just watched the film “Experimenter” on Netflix about Stanley Milgram and his social science experiments- it was a really good flick and it has made me want to find a copy of his book so I can read about all the variations to his experiment. At the end of the movie it was pointed out that a French TV/game show did a variation wherein the “teacher” was egged on to shock the “learner” by a live audience. 80% complied!!
    I understand why so many found Milgram’s work to be disturbing and some even rigorously fought against it: it lifted a very unflattering view of humanity to the mirror for us to see. I personally believe that the revelations discovered in his work are more important now than ever before. Never has humanity found itself in such a state of being disconnected to one another and compartmentalized into the roles we play each day. Personal responsibility is like a foreign language to many- there is always somebody else to blame for the conditions in which we find ourselves and our world. There is also a sense of helplessness that is becoming endemic… many of us can see the things that are wrong and should be changed, but we feel powerless against the sheer size and complexity of corporations, government, the school system etc.
    As I did long ago in college when I first learned of Milgram’s work, I found myself wondering if I would have obeyed the command to hurt someone, and how far I would have gone…. I’d LIKE to say that I would have been outraged and refused within a few minutes, but in knowing my penchant to please those who were “smarter than me”, I would probably gone far enough to cause myself significant shame.
    In my own life I can remember too many times when I obeyed but really didn’t want to do so. The best thing about Milgram’s work is that it has so much potential to increase our self and social awareness and that is always the first step to acknowledging one’s responsibility to ourselves and our society. I hope that many of you will take the time to watch this movie and share it with others.



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