Stanley Milgram was born in New York City, on August 15, 1933. He attended James Monroe High School in the Bronx, graduating in 1950. After receiving an A.B. degree from Queens College in 1954, he entered Harvard University's Department of Social Relations as a Ford Foundation fellow in the behavioral sciences.
At Harvard, Milgram studied with Gordon W. Allport and Solomon E. Asch. Milgram served as Asch's teaching assistant at Harvard and later worked as his research assistant at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. From 1957 to 1959 Milgram conducted field research leading to his 1960 Ph.D. dissertation "Conformity in Norway and France." Milgram continued to examine conformity and the effects of group pressure in later experiments at Yale University.
From 1960 to 1963 Milgram was an assistant professor of psychology at Yale. During this time he conducted his innovative and controversial experiments on obedience to authority. Milgram's experiment was designed to examine how far one individual will go in hurting another at the behest of a recognized authority figure. Employing more than twenty variations of the experimental situation, Milgram examined the relation of gender, setting, education, and other factors on an individual's willingness to comply with the experimenter's orders to give electric shocks to another person. The experiments also provoked controversy relating to the ethics of experimenting on human subjects. Milgram's findings appeared in numerous articles. He later described his work in the book Obedience to Authority: an Experimental View (1974).
From 1963 through 1967 Milgram taught psychology at Harvard University and served as the executive director of the Comparative International Program in the Department of Social Research. During this period he investigated communications systems. Using his lost letter technique Milgram developed a method for gauging community attitudes toward political groups and other institutions. By deliberately losing stamped envelopes addressed to various organizations and individuals and comparing the proportions of letters found and mailed to each target, Milgram was able to gauge the prevailing attitude toward the various organizations. In his small world research, Milgram sought a method to determine how many intermediate acquaintance links are needed to connect any two people in the world.
Milgram accepted a professorship in psychology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 1967, on whose faculty he would remain until the end of his life. He received a Guggenheim fellowship to study in Paris during the academic year 1972-1973. In 1980 he was made Distinguished Professor of Psychology.
Early in his tenure at CUNY, Milgram designed an experiment to examine the influence of violence in television programming on individual behavior. Milgram was able to get CBS to produce a particular episode of its dramatic series Medical Center with three different endings and he used these three versions in a series of field experiments in which resulting anti-social acts could be observed.
At CUNY Milgram also expanded his interest in the field of urban psychology, studying such concepts as groups and crowds, overload, social intrusion, the familiar stranger, and cognitive maps. In the latter study Milgram analyzed and compared the ability of New Yorkers and Parisians to identify photographs of various locations throughout their cities and to represent their city on a hand-drawn map. While at CUNY Milgram also studied the sociological and psychological effects of the camera and photography as a human activity.
At the very end of his life, Milgram was engaged in a set of experiments in which subjects interviewed an individual who appeared to be conversing normally but who in fact was delivering the responses and comments of a third person. The third person would communicate to him through a tiny radio receiver in the ear. Milgram called this technique "cyranic speech."
In addition to his books and numerous papers, Milgram was an accomplished documentary filmmaker. His films included Obedience, Invitation to Social Psychology, Independence and Conformity, Nonverbal Communication, and Human Aggression. He won a silver medal at the International Film and Television Festival in 1972 for his work on The City and the Self. His films were distributed widely for use in teaching about social psychology.
Milgram was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Psychological Association, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He died on December 20, 1984.
Description of the Papers
The Stanley Milgram Papers consist of correspondence, research files, writings files, and teaching files, which document Milgram's work as an innovative researcher and teacher in the field of social psychology. Files concerning his experiments cover the entire span of his career and highlight his work on obedience to authority, television violence, urban psychology, and communication patterns within society. While all phases of Milgram's teaching career are represented in the papers, the bulk of the teaching files date from Milgram's years at CUNY.
The Stanley Milgram Papers date from 1927-1986, though the bulk of the papers date after 1960. They are arranged in five series. The arrangement reflects, for the most part, Milgram's filing order. No general attempt has been made to rearrange material into series by topic or format. The dates given for individual files are the dates of the material in the files. Since there are printed materials in the files which Milgram used for background information, some files bear dates prior to Milgram's active professional career. Similarly, files for audio tapes and films which have recently been copied to allow research access on current equipment bear the date of the reformatting. The original copies of these materials, however, are in files dating from the time Milgram created them.
Series I, GENERAL FILES, is arranged in two sections: Chronological and Alphabetical. The Chronological section is composed almost entirely of correspondence arranged in very rough chronological order. The Alphabetical section includes: correspondence with selected individuals, which is filed by correspondent name; subject files, which incorporate correspondence, background material, and notes concerning a wide variety of topics, and files of personal material arranged by record type such as drawings and poems. The files in this section are arranged in alphabetical order. The topics covered by the subject files in this series do not duplicate or overlap with those of files found in Series II through V.
The Chronological section contains both incoming letters and copies of outgoing copies of Milgram's letters from 1954-1985. Some incoming letters are attached to Milgram's outgoing response, though there is no consistent pattern for filing by either the first or last date. Correspondents include personal friends, former students, and professional colleagues, such as Howard Leventhal, Andre Modigliani, Jeff Travers, Charles Korte, Robert L. Shotland, Phil Zimbardo, Elinor Mannucci, Roger Brown, Irving Janis, Judith Waters, Jerome Singer, Zick Rubin, Henri Tajfel, John Sabini, and Harold Takooshian. There is also correspondence with publishers, agents, co-authors like Hans Toch, organizations requesting Milgram to speak, persons requesting reprints, and members of the general public writing to comment on Milgram's work. Included in these files are also Milgram's critiques of manuscripts by others and reviews of grant proposals. The exchanges include some discussions of teaching and administrative duties at Yale and Harvard. There is a much larger quantity of this type of correspondence during Milgram's tenure at CUNY, which includes exchanges with Mina Rees, Irwin Katz, Harold Proshansky, and Mort Bard.
The Alphabetical section also includes correspondence with personal friends, former teachers, former students, and professional colleagues, such as Stuart Albert, Gordon Allport, Elliot Aronson, Solomon Asch, Alan Elms, Roy Feldman, Robert Frager, Harry Fromm, Paul Hollander, Sparks Lunney, Leon Mann, Serge Moscovici, and Maury Silver. There are also voluminous files on administrative matters at CUNY. The Milgram papers have only a small quantity of personal memorabilia, most of which is filed in this section. These files are composed of audio tapes, drawings, films, notes taken by Milgram in classes at Harvard, photographs, poems, and writings about Milgram and his work.
Series II, STUDIES, contains materials such as correspondence, notes, financial records, sample forms and instructions, writings of others concerning the subject of the experiment which serve as background for the study and as comment on the results of the study, and analyses of data for experiments designed and conducted by Milgram. (Data generated in the course of these studies is arranged in Series V. Files from experiments conducted as part of a course are filed in Series IV with other teaching materials about that course.) Each study is identified in the listing by a shortened descriptive title which is underlined. These titles appear in the listing in alphabetical order. For some of the fourteen studies there may be as little as one folder of such material, but there are extensive files for Cyranic, New York-Paris, Obedience, Small world, and TV violence.
Milgram kept detailed notes about the structuring of his experiments and the complex variations he undertook. The researcher will find it helpful to refer to study notebooks for Obedience (Series II, folder 163) and TV violence (Series II, folders 222-224) before trying to utilize the other material available for these studies. These notebooks outline the multiple conditions in each of these experiments. Grant applications, where available, are another useful source for understanding Milgram's research and interpreting the relevance of other material to a study.
Series III, WRITINGS, includes materials relating to Milgram's numerous books and articles, speeches, films, and one exhibition. The series reflects the themes explored in Milgram's studies but also includes Milgram's letters to the editor, reviews, and commentary on other areas of interest to him. The series includes files for published works, complete but unpublished works, and works never completed. For any given title, the series may contain correspondence with publishers, producers, reviewers, or persons making arrangements for a speaking engagement. There may also be notes, financial records, drafts, illustrations, printed copies, promotional materials, itineraries, and copies of reviews. (More general comments about Milgram's writings may be found in Series I under the heading "Writings on Milgram or his work." For the films there are also production materials such as outtakes and audio and video tapes.
Series IV, TEACHING FILES, includes course materials from Milgram's teaching assignments at Yale University, Harvard University, and the City University of New York. The series includes Milgram's notes, audio tapes of some class lectures and discussions, class rosters, syllabi, examination questions, and student papers and other assignments. The most extensive files are those for courses in experimental psychology. These files include the apparatus of studies carried out by the class as well as some data and data analysis generated by the study and records of expenditures. Some of these class studies relate to work Milgram developed in his own later studies, such as the lost letter technique and the cyranoid study. Milgram's interests in photography, film, and video are also reflected in these files.
Series V, DATA FILES, is composed of data collected by Milgram in the course of eleven of his studies; Milgram generated the bulk of the data in the Cyranic, New York-Paris, Obedience, Small world, and TV violence studies. The accumulated data includes lists of subjects, correspondence with subjects, questionnaires and other forms completed by subjects, audio and video tapes of experiments, and transcripts of interviews. (Some examples of questionnaire forms are included in Series II.) Motion picture film footage of actual experimental situations, made at the end of the obedience to authority study, was used in the production of Milgram's film Obedience. This data is arranged with other material pertaining to the film in Series III. Sanitized copies of the film have been transferred to a video tape (box 85), which is open to research.
Oversize materials from all series and sanitized copies of data files in Series V are filed at the end of the papers. The listing includes cross-references to all materials which have been arranged with the oversize or sanitized data.
The reader should note from these descriptions that there is no one place to look for all material on a particular topic or of a particular document type. In searching a subject, Milgram's work on obedience or on his cyranic studies for example, relevant material might be found in: the Chronological section of GENERAL FILES around the time of the experiment or in exchanges with selected correspondents in the Alphabetical section; in STUDIES under the name of the experiment; in the WRITINGS series, since Milgram often wrote or spoke about his experimental work; in TEACHING FILES since Milgram often used his studies as the basis for class assignments and discussion; and in DATA FILES which contain the raw data from an experiment. Similarly, there is no one series for all of Milgram's correspondence, audio tapes, photographs or any other document type. One can find correspondence, for example, in the GENERAL FILES in either the chronological or alphabetical sections; in the files for any particular experiment in STUDIES; in the WRITINGS concerning a publication or speaking engagement; or with subjects in the DATA FILES. The folder listing highlights files of audio tapes, video tapes, and films. Photographs are also noted, though individual photographs attached as enclosures in a letter are not listed separately.
The materials are arranged in five series and two additions: I. General Files, 1954-1985; II. Studies, 1927-1984; III. Writings, 1954-1993; IV. Teaching Files, 1960-1984; V. Data files, 1960-1984.
The Milgram Experiment
Saul McLeod published 2007
One of the most famous studies of obedience in psychology was carried out by Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University. He conducted an experiment focusing on the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience.
Milgram (1963) examined justifications for acts of genocide offered by those accused at the World War II, Nuremberg War Criminal trials. Their defense often was based on "obedience" - that they were just following orders from their superiors.
The experiments began in July 1961, a year after the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Milgram devised the experiment to answer the question:
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 (1963) wanted to investigate whether Germans were particularly obedient to authority figures as this was a common explanation for the Nazi killings in World War II. Milgram selected participants for his experiment by newspaper advertising for male participants to take part in a study of learning at Yale University.
The procedure was that the participant was paired with another person and they drew lots to find out who would be the ‘learner’ and who would be the ‘teacher.’ The draw was fixed so that the participant was always the teacher, and the learner was one of Milgram’s confederates (pretending to be a real participant).
The learner (a confederate called Mr. Wallace) was taken into a room and had electrodes attached to his arms, and the teacher and researcher went into a room next door that contained an electric shock generator and a row of switches marked from 15 volts (Slight Shock) to 375 volts (Danger: Severe Shock) to 450 volts (XXX).
Milgram (1963) was interested in researching how far people would go in obeying an instruction if it involved harming another person.
Stanley Milgram was interested in how easily ordinary people could be influenced into committing atrocities, for example, Germans in WWII.
Volunteers were recruited for a lab experiment investigating “learning” (re: ethics: deception). Participants were 40 males, aged between 20 and 50, whose jobs ranged from unskilled to professional, from the New Haven area. They were paid $4.50 for just turning up.
At the beginning of the experiment, they were introduced to another participant, who was a confederate of the experimenter (Milgram).
They drew straws to determine their roles – learner or teacher – although this was fixed and the confederate was always the learner. There was also an “experimenter” dressed in a gray lab coat, played by an actor (not Milgram).
Two rooms in the Yale Interaction Laboratory were used - one for the learner (with an electric chair) and another for the teacher and experimenter with an electric shock generator.
The “learner” (Mr. Wallace) was strapped to a chair with electrodes. After he has learned a list of word pairs given him to learn, the "teacher" tests him by naming a word and asking the learner to recall its partner/pair from a list of four possible choices.
The teacher is told to administer an electric shock every time the learner makes a mistake, increasing the level of shock each time. There were 30 switches on the shock generator marked from 15 volts (slight shock) to 450 (danger – severe shock).
The learner gave mainly wrong answers (on purpose), and for each of these, the teacher gave him an electric shock. When the teacher refused to administer a shock, the experimenter was to give a series of orders/prods to ensure they continued.
There were four prods and if one was not obeyed, then the experimenter (Mr. Williams) read out the next prod, and so on.
Prod 1: Please continue.
Prod 2: The experiment requires you to continue.
Prod 3: It is absolutely essential that you continue.
Prod 4: You have no other choice but to continue.
65% (two-thirds) of participants (i.e., teachers) continued to the highest level of 450 volts. All the participants continued to 300 volts.
Milgram did more than one experiment – he carried out 18 variations of his study. All he did was alter the situation (IV) to see how this affected obedience (DV).
Ordinary people are likely to follow orders given by an authority figure, even to the extent of killing an innocent human being. Obedience to authority is ingrained in us all from the way we are brought up.
People tend to obey orders from other people if they recognize their authority as morally right and/or legally based. This response to legitimate authority is learned in a variety of situations, for example in the family, school, and workplace.
Milgram summed up in the article “The Perils of Obedience” (Milgram 1974), writing:
'The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous import, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations.
I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist.
Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not.
The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.'
Milgrams' Agency Theory
Milgram (1974) explained the behavior of his participants by suggesting that people have two states of behavior when they are in a social situation:
- The autonomous state – people direct their own actions, and they take responsibility for the results of those actions.
- The agentic state – people allow others to direct their actions and then pass off the responsibility for the consequences to the person giving the orders. In other words, they act as agents for another person’s will.
Milgram suggested that two things must be in place for a person to enter the agentic state:
- The person giving the orders is perceived as being qualified to direct other people’s behavior. That is, they are seen as legitimate.
- The person being ordered about is able to believe that the authority will accept responsibility for what happens.
Agency theory says that people will obey an authority when they believe that the authority will take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. This is supported by some aspects of Milgram’s evidence.
For example, when participants were reminded that they had responsibility for their own actions, almost none of them were prepared to obey. In contrast, many participants who were refusing to go on did so if the experimenter said that he would take responsibility.
Milgram Experiment Variations
The Milgram experiment was carried out many times whereby Milgram (1965) varied the basic procedure (changed the IV). By doing this Milgram could identify which factors affected obedience (the DV).
Obedience was measured by how many participants shocked to the maximum 450 volts (65% in the original study). In total 636 participants have been tested in 18 different variation studies.
In the original baseline study – the experimenter wore a gray lab coat as a symbol of his authority (a kind of uniform). Milgram carried out a variation in which the experimenter was called away because of a phone call right at the start of the procedure.
The role of the experimenter was then taken over by an ‘ordinary member of the public’ ( a confederate) in everyday clothes rather than a lab coat. The obedience level dropped to 20%.
Change of Location
The experiment was moved to a set of run down offices rather than the impressive Yale University. Obedience dropped to 47.5%. This suggests that status of location effects obedience.
Two Teacher Condition
When participants could instruct an assistant (confederate) to press the switches, 92.5% shocked to the maximum 450 volts. When there is less personal responsibility obedience increases. This relates to Milgram's Agency Theory.
Touch Proximity Condition
The teacher had to force the learner's hand down onto a shock plate when they refuse to participate after 150 volts. Obedience fell to 30%.
The participant is no longer buffered / protected from seeing the consequences of their actions.
Social Support Condition
Two other participants (confederates) were also teachers but refused to obey. Confederate 1 stopped at 150 volts, and confederate 2 stopped at 210 volts.
The presence of others who are seen to disobey the authority figure reduces the level of obedience to 10%.
Absent Experimenter Condition
It is easier to resist the orders from an authority figure if they are not close by. When the experimenter instructed and prompted the teacher by telephone from another room, obedience fell to 20.5%.
Many participants cheated and missed out shocks or gave less voltage than ordered to by the experimenter. The proximity of authority figure affects obedience.
The Milgram studies were conducted in laboratory type conditions, and we must ask if this tells us much about real-life situations. We obey in a variety of real-life situations that are far more subtle than instructions to give people electric shocks, and it would be interesting to see what factors operate in everyday obedience. The sort of situation Milgram investigated would be more suited to a military context.
Orne & Holland (1968) accused Milgram’s study of lacking ‘experimental realism,'’ i.e.,' participants might not have believed the experimental set-up they found themselves in and knew the learner wasn’t receiving electric shocks.
Milgram's sample was biased:
The participants in Milgram's study were all male. Do the findings transfer to females?
Milgram’s study cannot be seen as representative of the American population as his sample was self-selected. This is because they became participants only by electing to respond to a newspaper advertisement (selecting themselves). They may also have a typical "volunteer personality" – not all the newspaper readers responded so perhaps it takes this personality type to do so.
Yet a total of 636 participants were tested in 18 separate experiments across the New Haven area, which was seen as being reasonably representative of a typical American town.
Milgram’s findings have been replicated in a variety of cultures and most lead to the same conclusions as Milgram’s original study and in some cases see higher obedience rates.
However, Smith & Bond (1998) point out that with the exception of Jordan (Shanab & Yahya, 1978), the majority of these studies have been conducted in industrialized Western cultures and we should be cautious before we conclude that a universal trait of social behavior has been identified.
Deception – the participants actually believed they were shocking a real person and were unaware the learner was a confederate of Milgram's.
However, Milgram argued that “illusion is used when necessary in order to set the stage for the revelation of certain difficult-to-get-at-truths.”
Milgram also interviewed participants afterward to find out the effect of the deception. Apparently, 83.7% said that they were “glad to be in the experiment,” and 1.3% said that they wished they had not been involved.
Protection of participants - Participants were exposed to extremely stressful situations that may have the potential to cause psychological harm. Many of the participants were visibly distressed.
Signs of tension included trembling, sweating, stuttering, laughing nervously, biting lips and digging fingernails into palms of hands. Three participants had uncontrollable seizures, and many pleaded to be allowed to stop the experiment.
In his defense, Milgram argued that these effects were only short-term. Once the participants were debriefed (and could see the confederate was OK) their stress levels decreased. Milgram also interviewed the participants one year after the event and concluded that most were happy that they had taken part.
However, Milgram did debrief the participants fully after the experiment and also followed up after a period of time to ensure that they came to no harm.
- Right to Withdrawal - The BPS states that researchers should make it plain to participants that they are free to withdraw at any time (regardless of payment).
Milgram debriefed all his participants straight after the experiment and disclosed the true nature of the experiment. Participants were assured that their behavior was common and Milgram also followed the sample up a year later and found that there were no signs of any long-term psychological harm. In fact, the majority of the participants (83.7%) said that they were pleased that they had participated.
Did Milgram give participants an opportunity to withdraw? The experimenter gave four verbal prods which mostly discouraged withdrawal from the experiment:
- Please continue.
- The experiment requires that you continue.
- It is absolutely essential that you continue.
- You have no other choice, you must go on.
Milgram argued that they are justified as the study was about obedience so orders were necessary. Milgram pointed out that although the right to withdraw was made partially difficult, it was possible as 35% of participants had chosen to withdraw.
Milgram (1963) Audio Clips
Below you can also hear some of the audio clips taken from the video that was made of the experiment. Just click on the clips below. You will be asked to decide if you want to open the files from their current location or save them to disk. Choose to open them from their current location. Then press play and sit back and listen!
Clip 1: This is a long audio clip of the 3rd participant administering shocks to the confederate. You can hear the confederate's pleas to be released and the experimenter's instructions to continue.
Clip 2: A short clip of the confederate refusing to continue with the experiment.
Clip 3: The confederate begins to complain of heart trouble.
Clip 4: Listen to the confederate get a shock: "Let me out of here. Let me out, let me out, let me out" And so on!
Clip 5: The experimenter tells the participant that they must continue.
View the complete article as a PDF document
Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-378.
Milgram, S. (1965). Some conditions of obedience and disobedience to authority. Human relations, 18(1), 57-76.
Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority: An experimental view. Harpercollins.
Orne, M. T., & Holland, C. H. (1968). On the ecological validity of laboratory deceptions. International Journal of Psychiatry, 6(4), 282-293.
Shanab, M. E., & Yahya, K. A. (1978). A cross-cultural study of obedience. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society.
Smith, P. B., & Bond, M. H. (1998). Social psychology across cultures (2nd Edition). Prentice Hall.
How to reference this article:
McLeod, S. A. (2007). The Milgram experiment. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/milgram.html