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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.

4 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 .



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