Stanley Milgram

(1933 - 1984)

Compiled by Heather Miller (May 1997)

Milgram • Biography
• Theory
• Time Line
• Bibliography


Stanley Milgram was raised in New York city where he was born in 1933. He graduated from James Monroe High School in 1950, along with fellow classmate and future social psychologist, Phil Zimbardo. A true city lover, he went on to earn his bachelor's degree from Queens College in 1954. His profound love of city life which was reflected in his 1970 article for Science on "The Experience of City Living."

Milgram went on for advanced study at Harvard where he earned his Ph.D. under Gordan Allport. Allport was very encouraging and supportive to his students even when their views differed from those of his own. And, Milgram was interested in social issues. This was a foreshadowing of the emerging field of urban psychology. His dissertation investigated cross-cultural differences in conformity which he conducted in Norway and Paris. Upon his return from Paris, Milgram spent 1959-1960 at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton with Solomon Asch. Asch was concerned with conformity and had completed his famous studies of conformity that required subjects to select lines judged to be the same size. The correct choices that would have been made were offset by counterfeit alternatives that were selected by the experimeter's confederates. These conflicting opinions induced the selection of lines that were not even close to the same length as the other. Milgram changed the design from lines to shocks and conducted his famous series of studies on obedience to authority.

Instead of pursuing issues defined by academicians, Milgram much preferred to tackle subjects that affected the average man or woman on the street. For example, once his mother-in-law asked him why people no longer gave up their seats on the subway. Milgram reasoned that New Yorkers were not hard and cold city dwellers, but instead were inhibited against engaging each other. He sent out his students to investigate this and concluded that his theory was accurate. In 1972, he returned to Paris to study Parisian's mental maps of their city with New Yorker's mental maps of New York.

Milgram published Obedience to Authority in 1974 and was awarded the annual social psychology award by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) for his life's work but mostly for his work with obedience. He was also nominated for a National Book Award, in 1975, for his book which by this time had been translated into seven languages for international distribution.

1984 Stanley Milgram died in New York City in 1984. He was 51 years old.


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. The aftermath of the Holocaust and the events leading up to World War II, the world was stunned with the happenings in Nazi German and their acquired surrounding territories that came out during the Eichmann Trials. Eichmann, a high ranking official of the Nazi Party, was on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The questions is, "Could it be that Eichmann, and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?" (Milgram, 1974)

Milgram answered the call to this problem by performing a series of studies on obedience to authority. Typically, two individuals show up for a study and are taken to a room where one is strapped in a chair to prevent movement and an electrode is placed on his arm. Next, the other person who is called the "teacher" is taken to an adjoining room where he is instructed to read a list of two word pairs and ask the "learner" to read them back. If the "learner" gets the answer correct, then they move on to the next word. If the answer is incorrect, the "teacher" is supposed to shock the "learner" starting at 15 volts and going up to 450 volts, in 15 volt increments. The "teacher" automatically is supposed to increase the shock each time the "learner" misses a word in the list. Although the "teachers" thought that they were administering shocks to the "learners", the "learners" were actually confederates who were never actually harmed.

The theory that only those on the sadistic fringe of society would submit to such cruelty is disclaimed. Findings show that, "two-thirds of this studies participants fall into the category of ‘obedient' subjects, and that they represent ordinary people drawn from the working, managerial, and professional classes". Ultimately 65% of all of the "teachers" punished the "learners" to the maximum 450 volts. (Milgram, 1974)

According to Milgram, every human has the dual capacity to function as an individual exercising his or her own moral judgement and the capacity to make their own moral decisions based on their personal character. What is still a mystery is this, what happens to the average person who is obedient to authority when it overrides their own moral judgement?

Examples of Milgram's Theory
The following examples are the most extreme cases known in the 20th century, where obedience was used by authority figures to perform or subject immoral acts on other human beings. One example is the My Lai massacre which involved American soldiers in Vietnam. My Lai was a small village in Vietnam where American soldiers 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 were informed of. It was probably not an isolated incident.

Milgram argued that the following factors could help explain the situation at My Lai. Military training sets apart soldiers from all others to prevent competition with authorities outside the military. The purpose of basic training is to break down the concepts of individuals and expand on the group or unit. During this time the soldiers spend a lot of time being disciplined. Following orders is the basis for the soldiers' actions. Cultural differences set the two sides (U.S. and North Vietnam) further apart and race was used to depersonalize the actions of war. The soldiers involved with this massacre felt that they were just following orders and it was their duty to follow orders from their "authority" figure.

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 points out, "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 a summary of his classic studies of Obedience to Authority)


Time Line of Milgram's Life

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: 72-73, Feb. ‘70.
Milgram, S., Reinert, J. (1970). Would you obey a Hitler? Science Digest, 67: 34-39, May, ‘70.
Milgram, S. (1973). Perils of Obedience. Harper, 247: 62+, Dec. 6, ‘73.
Milgram, S. (1974). Man of 1,000 Ideas. Psychology Today, 8: 74-5, June ‘74.
Milgram, S. (1974). Frozen World of the Familiar Stranger. Psychology Today, 8: 70-73, June, ‘74.
Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to Authority, Harper and Row.
Milgram, S. (1977). Image-Freezing Machine. Psychology Today, 14:7-12, Nov., ‘76.
Milgram, S. (1977). City Families Psychology Today, 10: 59-63+ Jan. ‘77.
Milgram, S. (1979). Candid Camera. Society,16: 72-5, Sep. ‘79.
Milgram, S. (1982). Understanding Psychological Man. Psychology Today, 169: 49-51, Ma ‘82.
Milgram, S. (1984). Network Love. Omni, 7: 34+, Oct. ‘84.



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