Stanley Milgram


Stanley Milgram : biography

August 15, 1933 – December 20, 1984

Obedience to authority

In 1963, Milgram submitted the results of his Milgram experiments in the article "Behavioral Study of Obedience". In the ensuing controversy, the American Psychological Association held up his application for membership for a year because of questions about the ethics of his work, but eventually did grant him full membership. Ten years later, in 1974, Milgram published Obedience to Authority. He won the AAAS Prize for Behavioral Science Research in 1964, mostly for his work on the social aspects of obedience. Inspired in part by the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, his models were later also used to explain the 1968 My Lai Massacre (including authority training in the military, depersonalizing the "enemy" through racial and cultural differences, etc.). He produced a film depicting his experiments, which are considered classics of social psychology.

Milgram’s Experiment 18: Peer shock administration

In this experiment, 26 out of 40 participants administered the full range of shocks up to 450 volts, the highest obedience rate Milgram found in his whole series. Thus, according to Milgram, the subject shifts responsibility to another person and does not blame himself for what happens. This resembles real-life incidents in which people see themselves as merely cogs in a machine, just "doing their job", allowing them to avoid responsibility for the consequences of their actions. The shocks themselves were fake; the participant who took the place as the "learner" in the experiment was in fact a paid actor who would simulate the effects of the shock depending on the voltage. Milgram became notorious for this tactic, and his experiment was soon classed as highly unethical as it caused stress to the participants in the study. The study soon became one of the most talked about psychological experiments in recent history, making headlines across the world, and resulted in Milgram finding himself in the centre of public attention. More recent tests of the experiment have found that it only works under certain conditions; in particular, when participants believe the results are necessary for the "good of science".

References in media

In 1975, CBS presented a made-for-television movie about obedience experiments: The Tenth Level with William Shatner as Stephen Hunter, a Milgram-like scientist. Milgram himself was a consultant for the film, though his personal life did not resemble that of the Shatner character. In this film, incidents were portrayed that never occurred in the followup to the real life experiment, including a subject’s psychotic episode and the main character saying that he regretted the experiment. When asked about the film, Milgram told one of his graduate students, Sharon Presley, that he was not happy with the film and told her that he did not want his name to be used in the credits.

The French political thriller I… comme Icare includes a key scene where Milgram’s experiment on obedience to authority is explained and shown.

In Alan Moore’s graphic novel, V for Vendetta, the character Dr. Delia Surridge discusses Milgram’s experiment without directly naming Milgram, comparing it with the atrocities she herself had performed in the Larkhill Concentration camps.

In 1986, musician Peter Gabriel wrote a song called We do what we’re told (Milgram’s 37), referring to the number of subjects (out of 40) who obeyed the experimenters all the way in Milgram’s authority experiment, Milgram 18.

The award-winning short film Atrocity (2005) re-enacts Milgram’s Obedience to Authority experiment.

Milgram 18 was reproduced to test the participants in a 2008 television special "The Heist". Created by Derren Brown and Andy Nyman for British station Channel 4, the Milgram experiment helped determine which candidates were the most responsive to authority. The four most responsive and psychologically sound candidates at the end of the show were indirectly given the opportunity to rob a (fake) armoured bank van.