Stanley Milgram asked if one human would torture another when instructed to do so by a seemingly authority figure.
He answered the question with his infamous Obedience Experiment. In a series of experiments people were instructed to deliver increasingly powerful electric shocks to others. The willingness of people to follow such instructions shook the world.
Milgram later investigated the Small World Question concerning social networks and connectedness: he wanted to measure the probability that two randomly selected Americans would know one another. If they didn’t, how long a chain of other people would be needed on average to connect the pair. The experiment led Milgram to wrongly be thought of as the inventor of the Six Degrees of Separation. He was actually the first to devise an experiment to verify the concept.
Stanley Milgram was born in New York, USA on August 15, 1933 into a lower middle-class family in the Bronx. His parents were Samuel Milgram, a baker, and Adele Israel, a housewife. Samuel had come to America from Hungary and Adele from Romania. Both were Jewish, although neither was notably religious.
Stanley had an older sister, Marjorie, and a younger brother, Joel. Stanley’s sister was intensely jealous of her younger brother, hitting him repeatedly when he was a baby and demanding that he be thrown in the incinerator!
Stanley attended PS 77 elementary school on Ward Avenue. All boys were required to wear a white shirt and tie. His elementary school teachers later recalled Stanley as an exceptional student.
At age 13, Stanley gave a short speech at his Bar Mitzvah. It began:
As I come of age and find happiness in joining the ranks of Israel, the knowledge of the tragic suffering of my fellow Jews through-out war-torn Europe makes this also a solemn event and an occasion to reflect upon the heritage of my people.
The year was 1946. The full horror of Nazi Germany’s industrial-scale slaughter of Jews was continuing to emerge.
The following year, age 14, Stanley entered James Monroe High School, a huge school with more than 3,500 students.
Queen’s College and Prediction of His Own Death
In 1950, Stanley Milgram chose to go to Queen’s College, New York. His choice of college was heavily influenced by the fact that it was free and not too far from the family’s new home in Queens.
Milgram’s father died in 1953 at age 55. Milgram was disturbed by his father’s early death, and he seemed to become unusually fatalistic about his own lifespan. He predicted that he too would die at age 55. His prediction was not fulfilled – he died even younger.
In 1954, Milgram graduated B.A. with honors in political science, receiving the school award in that subject.
Milgram hoped to become a graduate student at Harvard’s flourishing Department of Social Relations. Harvard said this would be okay, provided he enrolled as a Special Student and spent a year catching up on psychology before becoming a regular graduate student.
Milgram started at Harvard in the fall of 1954 and was awarded a PhD in social psychology in June 1960.
Obedience to Authority
Three months after receiving his PhD, Milgram began work as an assistant professor in Yale’s Psychology Department. He now started to plan the Obedience Experiment.
The forces pushing him in this direction were:
- At Harvard he had been deeply interested in Solomon Asch’s conformity experiments involving the effects of peer pressure.
- He wanted to understand how apparently ordinary German people had participated in the Holocaust.
- He believed that his future in academia would be secured if he carried out important, eye-catching research.
In the final two months of 1960, Milgram trialed Yale undergraduates in obedience experiments, with breathtaking results. He then applied successfully to the National Science Foundation for a grant to support two years of research.
Milgram ran experiments between August 7, 1961, and the end of May 1962.
The Obedience Experiment
Imagine you have volunteered to take part in a scientific experiment on memory and learning at Yale. You will be paid for attending whatever the outcome of the experiment. You are free to go home at any time of your own choosing – you will be paid just for turning up for a minute.
You and another volunteer are paired and you draw lots to decide which of you will be teacher and which will be learner. What you don’t know is that everything is fixed so that you will be teacher and the other volunteer (who is actually an actor) will be learner.
You meet the scientist running the program who tells you the learner will be punished for any mistakes they make in reciting a memorized list of words. You will administer an electric shock to the learner.
You and the learner will be in adjacent rooms, able to hear but unable to see one another.
You begin by going to the learner’s room where the learner is strapped securely into something that looks like an electric chair. You are told this prevents him ‘moving excessively.’ The scientist attaches electrodes to the learner along with electrode paste – you are told this avoids blisters and burns. The electrodes are attached with wires to an electric shock generator in the adjacent room, where you and the scientist will work.
You are given an electric shock yourself to let you feel a small punishment shock. (This also indicates to you that the shock generator is genuine.)
You go to the adjacent room with the scientist. The experiment begins. The learner makes mistakes, which you punish with shocks of increasing voltage – you increase the level by 15 V after each ‘mistake.’ The switches you administer the shocks with begin at 15 V, marked as ‘Slight Shock.’ When you administer a shock, the switch you operate makes a buzzing sound.
Other switches, with voltages increasing up to 450 V are marked with phrases such as:
Slight Shock, Moderate Shock, Strong Shock, Very Strong Shock, Intense Shock, Extreme Intensity Shock, Danger: Severe Shock, XXX.
You ask just how dangerous this shock generator is. The scientist tells you the shocks can be extremely painful, but they cause no permanent damage.
You must always tell the learner what the new increased voltage is before you administer it.
You hear the learner’s increasingly traumatized response to the growing intensity of the shocks when they make ‘mistakes.’ They kick on the walls pleading with you to stop.
Hysterically, they shout: “Let me out of here. Let me out of here. You have no right to hold me here. Let me out! Let me out!”
You want to stop, but the scientist running the experiment responds progressively to your protests with prods:
- Prod 1: Please continue.
- Prod 2: The experiment requires that you continue.
- Prod 3: It is absolutely essential that you continue.
- Prod 4: You have no other choice, you must go on.
You administer a 315 V shock. No sound comes from the next room: no response to the question the learner has been asked. The scientist tells you that silence is the same as a wrong answer and a shock must be administered.
The results were shocking! Of the 40 people who played the role of teacher nobody withdrew from the experiment before administering a 300 V shock (marked as ‘Intense Shock’). At this voltage the learner would be noisily kicking the wall between the rooms. Of course, no electric shocks were actually administered to the learner.
Only 5 out of 40 teachers refused to follow the instructions of the scientist to go beyond this level into ‘Extreme Intensity Shock’ levels.
26 out of 40 teachers went all the way, administering 450 V shocks, the switch for which was ominously marked XXX. By this time, many of the teachers were showing signs of extreme stress. Nevertheless, they obeyed the instructions given by the scientist. Some, however, were calm throughout the process.
Milgram and the scientific community were disturbed by the findings. The scientist had no authority to enforce his commands and there was no material loss involved to any of the teachers if they refused to continue with the shocks, yet most did. Most expressed disapproval of the experiment, but continued regardless.
In essence, if people believed they were obeying the instructions of a ‘legitimate authority’ it overrode their disposition not to harm other people.
Milgram’s discovery seems to have as much relevance today as it did when he performed these experiments with the Holocaust in mind.
Lessening the Trauma
Milgram noted that:
…procedures were undertaken to assure that the subject would leave the laboratory in a state of well being. A friendly reconciliation was arranged between the subject and victim and an effort was made to reduce any tensions that arose as a result of the experiment.
Harvard refused to offer Milgram a tenured position, perhaps because of the faculty’s ethical discomfort with his Obedience Experiment. There were also concerns that he criticized his students too harshly when they made errors. Milgram was hurt by Harvard’s treatment of him, which he felt was unfair.
The Small World Question
While at Harvard, Milgram read about MIT’s Ithiel de Sola Pool and IBM’s Manfred Kochen’s theoretical model, which predicted that any two random strangers could be linked by a short string of acquaintances.
Milgram wondered if he could prove the model was correct in the real world.
In 1967, he sent 160 folders to 160 randomly selected people in Omaha, Nebraska. A message with the folder requested that the recipient forward it to anyone they knew personally who they believed was more likely than they were to know a particular named stockbroker in Boston, Massachusetts. A recipient could only send the folder directly to the stockbroker if they knew him personally.
Milgram found that chains were an average (median) of just five intermediate acquaintances long.
The concept of “six degrees” of separation was not universally accepted. However, in 2008, a study of Microsoft’s .NET messaging found the average chain of contacts between any two users was 6.6 people.
Some Personal Details and the End
Milgram married Alexandra Menkin, an office worker from the Bronx, at the Brotherhood Synagogue in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village on December 10, 1961. Alexandra, who was always called Sasha, was four years older than 28-year-old Stanley. The couple had two children: Michele and Marc.
When Harvard refused to give him a tenured position, Milgram accepted the position of full professor at City University of New York Graduate Center in March 1967. Milgram, who was by now one of the most controversial figures in psychology, doubled his salary overnight.
In May 1980, age 46, Milgram suffered a massive heart attack. A year later another struck. More followed.
Stanley Milgram died at age 51 of a heart attack – his fifth – on December 20, 1984 at New York City’s Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center.
He was survived by Alexandra, Michele and Marc. Alexandra died in March 2020.
Author of this page: The Doc
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"Stanley Milgram." Famous Scientists. famousscientists.org. 8 May. 2020. Web. <www.famousscientists.org/stanley-milgram/>.
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Behavioral Study of Obedience.
Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. Vol. 67 (4): pp 371-8, 1963
The Man Who Shocked The World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram
Basic Books, 2004