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.
Why Milgram Conducted the Obedience Experiments
Stanley Milgram was born to Jewish parents in 1933 in New York City. In an article in The Psychologist, his widow, Alexandra Milgram, writes that Milgram’s interest in the Holocaust was piqued when witnessing his parents listening to the radio during World War II. His interest was further fueled by his postdoctoral work with another renowned psychologist, Solomon Asch. Asch’s famous experiments looked at the influence of peer pressure on conformity.
Alexandra Milgram also writes:
Before he even started at Yale, he conceived of and developed his ideas to do his experiments on obedience to authority. This was an outgrowth of his early interest in the Holocaust. He wondered, in a civilised country like Germany that had produced great scientists and artists, how the German government could find all the people needed to press the levers in all of the concentration camps during World War II to exterminate thousands of people. It was not just one ‘crazy’ man.
(By the way, be sure to read her entire article. She shares a really interesting anecdote about how Milgram began his graduate studies in psychology.)
In fact, he felt very close to the Jewish people of German-speaking communities. In a letter from France to a childhood friend, Milgram wrote:
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.
(This excerpt appears in Thomas Blass’s The Man Who Shocked The World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram.)
The Obedience Experiments
Milgram wanted to test whether ordinary individuals would administer electric shocks to another person when instructed by an authority figure, the experimenter. He recruited 40 men from a newspaper ad to participate in the experiment.
Basically, the men were told to deliver shocks to a “student” (really a confederate) when the individual answered a question incorrectly. They began with 15 volts, and then each shock increased by 15-volt increments, going all the way up to 450 volts.
The results were appalling: Sixty-five percent of participants delivered all the electric shots even while the person was screaming in pain and begging for the shocks to stop.
Milgram’s obedience experiments were intricately designed. Early in his life, he was very passionate about the opera and musicals. (According to his widow, he even collaborated on two musicals.) According to this piece in The Psychologist:
As recently documented by Nestar Russell (2011; see also his ‘Looking back’ piece in the September 2010 issue of The Psychologist: www.bps.org.uk/nestar), Milgram put great efforts into the set (much care was put into designing the shock machine as a huge, intimidating and imposing piece of equipment), he put great effort into the actors (spending considerable time carefully recruiting his confederates), and he put much effort into the script (the prompts used by the experimenter were carefully designed as were the reactions of the ‘learner’ who supposedly received the shocks). The ultimate effect was as compelling for the viewer as for the participant. Milgram made a film of the studies with the simple title Obedience. Watch it. As the participants agonise over what to do, as they struggle over whether to heed the words of the experimenter or the cries of the learner, it is hard to tear oneself away. Milgram’s studies endure as great drama as well as great science.