Psychology History

Stanley Milgram

(1933 - 1984)

Compiled by:

Michael Goret, Amanda Zega, Lorraine Voss, Gillian Fawcett-Hammalian

Stanley Milgram is a pioneer in psychology who is most remembered for his work with obedience to authority. He was highly interested in the reasons why the average person would submit to obedience through an authority figure although he/she knew that he/she was harming an innocent third party. This research was prompted by the events of the Holocaust and later the Nuremberg Trials in which Eichmann, an infamous nazi, supported his actions of genocide as simply following orders.

Milgram was born in New York in 1933. He received his bachelor's degree from Queens College in 1954. He had a profound love of city life. This was reflected in his 1970 article for Science on "The Experience of City Living."

Milgram's work began at Harvard where he was working towards his Ph.D. with Gordan Allport. Allport was very encouraging and supportive of his students even when their views differed from those of his own. Milgram through his research and writings laid down the framework for the field that later became known as urban psychology. His doctoral dissertation research dealt with cross-cultural differences in conformity which he conducted in Norway and Paris.

Upon his return from Paris, Milgram spent 1959-1960 attending the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton where he worked with Solomon Asch. Here he altered the original study on conformity conducted by Asche from lines to shocks. Asche's study was concerning conformity and choosing lines that were the same size, however numerous counterfeits were presented to the sujects. Ultimately the participant ended up with opinions that were influenced by the group of confederates that were present. Asche found that the subjects under such conditions would choose lines that differed significantly because of the pressures to confirm to the group. This intrigued Milgram and had a profound effect on his obedience experiment's.

Although Milgram is remembered most in Social Psychology texts, he had great disdain for this field. Instead of problems brought about by social psychologists he much preferred to tackle subjects that effected the average man or woman on the street. For example, his mother-in-law once asked him why people no longer gave up their seats on the subways. Immediately, Milgram hypothisized that people were not hard and cold city dwellers, but instead were facing inhibitions against engaging each other. So he sent out his students to observe this phenomenon and concluded that his theory was indeed accurate.

In 1972, Milgram returned to Paris to undertake research on the comparisons of Parisians' mental maps of their city with that of New Yorkers. Immediately following his return to the U.S. he continued work on his infamous Obedience to Authority study which were first published in 1974. Soon after this publication he was honored with the annual sociopsychology award by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) for his life's work and to honor his research in the area of obedience. He also received further acclaim for this study by being nominated for a National Book Award in 1975. By this time, Obedience to Authority, had been translated into seven languages for international distribution.

Overview of Milgram's Theory

Theory of Obedience
It is ironic that virtues of loyalty, discipline, and self-sacrifice that we value so highly in the individual are the very properties that create destructive organizational engines of war and bind men to malevolent systems of authority.(Obedience to Authority, 1974, p.188)

The aftermath of the Holocaust and the events leading up to World War II left the world stunned with the happenings in Nazi German and their acquired territories. Much of the destruction and lack of compassion for human life came to the forefront of concern for society at large during the Eichmann Trials. Eichmann, a high ranking official of the Nazi Party who could be attributed with sending thousands to their deaths, was on trial for various war crimes and the monstrosities he commited against humanity. The most intriguing questions that came to light at the time were , "Could it be that Eichmann, and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?"

Milgram answered the call to these propositions by performing a series of studies on the Obedience to Authority. In most versions of this experiment two individuals would arrive at a testing center simultaneously. Here they would meet an instructer who appeared to be conducting the experiment. This instructor superficially appeared as an authority figure by displaying the necessary crudentials as a professor such as a white lab coat and clip board. The two "subjects"were then taken to a room where one was strapped in a chair to prevent movement and an electrode was placed on their arm. Next, the other individual who was called the "teacher" was taken to an adjoining room where he/she was instructed to read a list of two word pairs. He/She would then ask the "learner" to read them back. If the "learner" got the answer correct, they would then move on to the next set of words in the series. However, if the answer was wrong the "teacher" was informed by the instructor that they were required to administer shock to the "learner". These shocks first started at 15 volts and increased to 450 volts for each incorrect response. This occured in 15 volt increments. The "teacher" was never cohersed into doing so they were simply told by the instructer that the experiement required them to continue. This in fact is what made this study so intiguing; the "teacher" could have discontinued the experiment at any time but you will soon see that the majority continued to shock. The "teacher" was fully under the assumption that he/she was administering discipline to the "learner" however, they were never really doing so. The "learner" was actually a confederate,a student or actor, who were never actually harmed. This version was Milgram's experiment was the most basic. There were numerous variations in the arrangement between the "learner" and the "teacher" which entailed the proximity of the victim to the disciplinarian and others where there were contradictions between numerous instructers as to whether the experiment should go on just to name a few.

Today the field of psychology would deem this study highly unethical because of the great deal of stress layed upon the subjects, however it is quite evident that this research yielded some extremely important findings. The theory that only the most severe monsters on the sadistic fringe of society would submit to such cruelty is disclaimed. Findings indicated that, "two-thirds of this studies participants fell into the category of 'obedient' subjects. These participants represented ordinary people drawn from the working, managerial, and professional classes" (Obedience to Authority). Ultimately 65% of all of the "teachers" punished the "learners" to the maximum 450 volts.

According to Milgram, every human has the dual capacity to function as an individual exercising his or her own moral judgement and the aptness to make their own moral decisions based on their personal character. The question is therefore raised: What becomes of the average person who is obedient to authority when it overrides their own moral judgement?

Examples of Milgram's Theory
The following and preceding examples are the most extreme case known in the 20th century, where obedience was used by an authority figures to perform or subject immoral acts on other human beings. Another example is the Mi Lai massacre which involved American soldiers in Vietnam. Mi Lai was a small village where American soldiers opened fire and killed over 350 men, women, and children. It's important to note that this was the only documented incident during the Vietnam conflict that the American public was informed of, however, the chances of it being an isolated incident are highly unlikely.

Milgram councluded that the following factors could help explain the situation at Mi Lai. Military training sets apart soldiers from all others to prevent competition with authorities outside the military. The period of basic training is largely used to breakdown the concepts of individuals and create cohesion in the group or unit. During this time the soldiers spend a large majority of their time being disciplined during which they are virtually brainwashed into following orders without question. This is indeed the very function of a soldier. Political differences were used for the justification of actions and to differentiate the two sides (U.S. and North Vietnam). This combined with the trump card of race, which was used as the catalyst,depersonalized the actions of combat. The soldiers involved with this massacre felt that they were simply following orders and it was their duty to do so because it was dictated by their "authority" figure. This undoubtedly sounds similar to that of Eichman's reasoning.

Milgram has noted reoccurring themes (as found in Obedience to Authority) in these specific incidents as well as others. People who are doing a job as instructed by an administrative figure are following the instructions of that administrative outlook and not the outlook of a moral code. The feelings of duty and personal emotion are clearly separated. Responsibility shifts in the mind of the subordinate from himself/herself to the authority figure. There is a well defined purpose behind the actions or goals of the authority, and the subordinate is depended upon to help and meet those goals. Milgram has this to say about these factors and findings from his study, "The results, as seen and felt in the laboratory, are to this author disturbing. They raise the possibility that human nature, or -more specifically-the kind of character produced in American society, cannot be counted on to insulate the citizens from brutality and inhumane treatment at the direction of malevolent authority." (Use this Link to review his classic study of Obedience to Authority)


1933 Born in New York
1959 Worked with Solomon Asche at Princeton
1960 Worked with Gordon Allport on this Ph.D. at Harvard
1962 Professor at Yale
1963 Published one of 6 popular papers on his shock experiments on Authority
1967 City University Professor
1972 Returned from Paris
1974 Distinguished professor of Psychology at City College (NYC)
1975 Nominated for a National Book Award for Obedience to Authority
1984 Died in New York City

Bibliography of Milgram's Work

Milgram, S. (1961). Nationality and Conformity; with a biographical Sketch. Scientific American, 205: 34; 45-51, De '61.
Milgram, S., Hollander, P. (1964). Murder the Heard. Nation, 198: 602-4, Je 15, '64.
Milgram, S., Milgram, A. (1954). Facts of Life. Nation, 199: 412+, No 30, 1964.
Milgram, S. (1969). Experience in Living in Cities. Science, 167: 1461-8, Mr 13, '70.
Milgram, S. (1970). If Hitler asked you to electrocute a stranger, would you? Esquire, 73: 72-3+, Fe '70.
Milgram, S., Reinert, J. (1970). Would you obey a Hitler? Science Digest, 67: 34-9, Ma '70.
Milgram, S. (1973). Perils of Obedience. Harper, 247: 62+, De 6. '73.
Milgram, S. (1974). Man of 1,000 Ideas. Psychology Today, 8: 74-5, Je '74.
Milgram, S. (1974). Frozen World of the Familiar Stranger. Psychology Today, 8: 70-3+, Je '74.
Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to Authority, Harper and Row.
Milgram, S. (1977). Image-Freezing Machine. Psychology Today, 14:7-12, No '76.
Milgram, S. (1977). City Families Psychology Today, 10: 59-63+ Ja '77.
Milgram, S. (1979). Candid Camera. Society,16: 72-5, Se '79.
Milgram, S. (1982). Understanding Psychological Man. Psychology Today, 169: 49-51, Ma '82.
Milgram, S. (1984). Network Love. Omni, 7: 34+, Oc '84.

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