Stanley Milgram (1933-1984)

Obedience (1962)

Stanley Milgram was a social psychologist best-remembered for his now infamous obedience experiments. His research demonstrated how far people are willing to go to obey authority. His experiments are also remembered for their ethical issues, which contributed to changes in how experiments can be performed today.

Stanley Milgram was born on August 15, 1933, to a family of Jewish immigrants in New York City. Milgram attended James Monroe High School, where he quickly earned a reputation as a hard worker and a strong leader and completed high school in just three years. One of his classmates was future social psychologist Philip Zimbardo.

He earned his bachelor's in political science from Queens College in 1954. At this point, his interests shifted to psychology, but he was initially rejected from Harvard University's graduate program in social relations since he had never taken a single psychology course during his undergraduate years. He was eventually able to gain admission and went on to earn his Ph.D. in social psychology in 1960 under the direction of psychologist Gordon Allport.

During his graduate studies, Milgram had spent a year working as a research assistant to Solomon Asch who was interested in conformity in social groups.5 Asch's famous conformity experiment involved having participants judge the length of a line. Milgram was inspired by the study and went on to perform a similar experiment that would make him famous.

He began working at Yale in 1960 and started conducting his obedience experiments in 1961. In these experiments, participants were ordered by an authority figure to deliver increasingly strong electrical shocks to another person. In reality, the other person was a confederate in the experiment and was simply pretending to be shocked.1 Surprisingly, 65% of the participants were willing to deliver the maximum voltage shocks under orders from the experimenter.

In 1963, Milgram returned to teach at Harvard for a few years but was not offered tenure largely due to the controversy swirling around him thanks to his infamous obedience experiments. City University of New York (CUNY) asked him to head up their newly formed social psychology program, and in 1974 he published his book Obedience to Authority. Milgram remained at CUNY until his death on December 20, 1984, from a heart attack.

The 19 different experiments that Milgram conducted on obedience demonstrated that people were willing to obey an authority figure even if the actions went against their morals. The experiments are well-known today, mentioned in virtually every introductory psychology textbook. While Milgram himself was known for his concern for the well-being of his participants, his work was often harshly criticized for the possible negative emotional impact it had on subjects.

Part of the reason why the American Psychological Association established standards for working with human subjects and why Institutional Review Boards exist today is because of Milgram's work.

In his 2004 biography, author Thomas Blass noted that social psychology is often dismissed as something that simply proves so-called "common sense."4 Through his surprising results, Milgram was able to demonstrate that the things we think we know about ourselves and our behavior in social groups may not necessarily be true. In essence, Milgram was able to shine a light on a subtopic of psychology that some may view as unimportant, but that in reality reveals important truths about human behavior.

"A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act, and without pangs of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority," Milgram explained of his work.7