Stanley Milgram - Social Psychology - The Canon

Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World - Andrea Bonior 2016

Stanley Milgram
Social Psychology
The Canon


BORN 1933, New York City, New York


DIED 1984, New York City, New York


Educated at Queens College and Harvard University



Stanley Milgram’s work in social psychology spanned several areas. The first, though not nearly as infamous as his later research on obedience to authority, involved connectedness among people. In a noteworthy study, he randomly sent packages to 160 people in Nebraska and asked each of them to send the package on to a stranger in Boston who had an unlisted address. To complete the task, the package recipients were allowed to use only intermediaries whom they did know, but who they thought would take them one step closer to getting the packages to their intended recipients in Boston. Remarkably, many of the packages did reach their targets in Boston, with the help of only a few intermediaries. The average number of intermediaries was 5.5, and thus was born the notion of six degrees of separation.

But by far Milgram’s best-known work involved obedience to authority. His interest in this topic came from the horrified “whys” and “hows” following the Nazis’ extermination of 11 million people in the Holocaust, including 6 million Jews. What happens to make a seemingly healthy, moral, “normal” individual go along with the planned annihilation of his or her fellow human beings? What does “just following orders” really mean, and how far can it go as an explanation of sickening, violent behavior? The trial of Adolf Eichmann, who oversaw the murder of millions of Jews in the Nazi gas chambers, was well publicized across the world in 1961. And that was likely a direct catalyst for Milgram’s most famous series of experiments, conducted a few months later and showing that even ordinary people can be induced to harm other people whom they don’t even know, especially when an apparently legitimate authority figure tells them to do so.


Milgram believed that cultures all around the world stress obedience to authority, to the point where people can come to feel like agents acting on behalf of other people’s desires, and that the sense of personal responsibility for actions can begin to disappear. He also illuminated the role of psychological distance between actions and their consequences. The more emotionally removed people feel from the consequences of their behavior, the more they feel that they are just cogs in a machine, carrying out actions that they may or may not even agree with.

But why would any of us do things that we don’t agree with, especially when they involve hurting others? Milgram posited that it becomes easier when we stick our heads in the proverbial sand. We do our best to blind ourselves to the reality of the emotional and physical experience of the person we are hurting. In fact, in our minds, the victim of our mistreatment may become less a person than an object—and we, too, cease to be thinking, feeling persons and instead become agents carrying out a task. This is dehumanization, and Milgram showed just how far it can go in making us willing to hurt people. And if someone who wants us to harm others can come up with a lofty rationalization for that behavior, we find ourselves all the more able to justify our actions. Milgram revealed a slippery slope—if gradations are offered along the path of doing harm, then hurting another person a little bit appears to pave the way to hurting the person a lot.

Milgram’s theories exemplify the central tenet of social psychology—that the situations we find ourselves in can very much determine how we behave and even get us to behave in ways that are out of line with what we normally would do (or think we would do). Needless to say, Milgram’s findings are extremely unsettling. Nevertheless, by provocatively asking just how far human beings can be induced to go, he began our exploration of the forces of authority and the urge to obey, and of how to help people stand up to those forces.

KEY EXPERIMENT In 1961, Stanley Milgram was a professor at Yale University. He placed a newspaper ad that offered Connecticut residents $4.50 per hour for their participation in an experiment. Respondents were told that they would be involved in a study exploring the relationship between punishment and learning.

In this series of experiments, the participants (formerly called subjects, a term now considered problematic for its connotations of powerlessness) were all men, and they went through the experiment in pairs, though one of the two men was always a confederate (that is, an actor who appeared to be just like his counterpart but was actually in on the experiment). The participant and the confederate appeared to have been assigned their roles of teacher and learner randomly, but in truth the distribution of roles was always rigged so that the real participant was always the teacher. The learner (the confederate) was a mild-mannered middle-aged man in professional dress. With the teacher looking on, an experimenter strapped the learner to a chair and attached electrodes to his wrists.

In one version of the experiment, the experimenter then led the teacher into a different room, where the teacher was unable to see the learner and could communicate with him only by way of a loudspeaker. The experimenter then showed the teacher a shock generator. It had 30 switches, each one corresponding to a point along a spectrum of severity (15 to 450 volts), and each one labeled: (1) slight shock near the beginning, (2) very strong shock at 135 volts, (3) intense shock, (4) extreme-intensity shock, (5) danger—severe shock, and, finally and ominously, (6) just XXX at the two highest levels. Of course, the shock generator was fake, and it produced no shocks, but the teacher did not know this. The experimenter gave the teacher a 45-volt shock as a demonstration of how being shocked would feel. That was only three levels up from the beginning of the spectrum (slight shock), but it was clearly uncomfortable.

The experimenter instructed the teacher to present a list of word pairs to the learner, who in turn was supposed to remember the correct associations. Then the teacher was to test the learner, and when the learner gave an incorrect response, the teacher was instructed to shock him by flipping one of the labeled switches. The teacher was also instructed to increase the level of shock by 15 volts with each new error on the part of the learner.

Prerecorded audio masqueraded as the learner’s real-time responses, and so the learner’s responses were the same for every teacher-learner pair. When the level of the shocks administered by the teacher reached about 120 volts, the prerecorded voice shouted that the shocks were too painful. At 150 volts, the voice demanded release from the experiment. At 300 volts, the voice screamed that no further answers would be given, and succeeding shocks were met with complete silence. If the teacher balked at proceeding, the experimenter prompted him to go on, using a series of increasingly imperative statements that began with “Please continue” and ended with “You have no other choice; you must go on.” If the teacher balked four times, the experiment was ended.

About 65 percent of the teachers obeyed the experimenter all the way to the end, even when the learner had mentioned at the beginning of the experiment that he had a heart condition. Results varied with different conditions. For example, when the experimenter was not a white-coated investigator but a younger person, fewer people obeyed. There was also much less obedience when the learner remained in view of the teacher.

It is worth noting that the infliction of psychological harm on the participants—many of whom expressed distress both during and after the experiment, believing that they had hurt someone—has raised ethical concerns about the experiment itself. It is quite safe to say that such an experiment would no longer be allowed to take place at a major academic institution. And not just ethical criticisms have been leveled at Milgram’s research in the decades since these experiments. Methodological concerns have also been expressed, including certain researchers’ criticism that some of the participants appear to have figured out that the scenario was not real.


Stanley Milgram’s findings spurred decades of study about the strength of social and situational factors in inducing people to do startling things. His findings particularly inspired Philip Zimbardo, who later conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment. Ethical concerns raised by Milgram’s experimental research led to stricter regulation of psychological research and to a greater focus on protecting human participants.


A particularly eerie Twilight Zone episode from 1986 illustrates the relative ease of inflicting damage on people we don’t know and can’t see. The episode, titled “Button, Button” and based on a short story by Richard Matheson, involves a couple in desperate financial circumstances. They are visited by a mysterious stranger, Mr. Steward, who is carrying a box. He tells them that if they press a button inside the box, they will receive $200,000, but they will also become responsible for the death of someone whom they don’t know. The husband rejects the idea, but the wife eventually succumbs to the urge, rationalizing that the person about to die may be someone old and near death anyway. She presses the button. The next day, Mr. Steward returns and gives them the money. When the woman asks what will happen to the box, he tells her it will be reprogrammed, and that it will be offered to someone whom they don’t know. And he looks her in the eye to make sure she understands exactly what she’s done.

Or consider the TV series Breaking Bad. One of its most riveting and disturbing aspects is how an apparently ordinary high school science teacher, Walter White, eventually morphs into a heartless, murderous drug kingpin. He begins by selling crystal meth to ensure his family’s financial stability after what he assumes will be his certain death from lung cancer. But as he progressively gains power and solidifies his earnings, he becomes farther and farther removed from the moral person we originally took him to be. He doesn’t go from 0 to 60 in a week; it takes him years. But with each step he takes, the next becomes easier and less shocking.

None of us wants to think that we would push through someone’s desperate screams and inflict unbearable pain on him simply because he didn’t complete a task correctly. Just as the majority of American adults consider themselves better-than-average drivers—when, mathematically speaking, that can’t possibly be the case—most of us are willing to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the strength of our moral values and our ability to resist an order to harm another human being. Our illusory superiority prompts us to judge ourselves more leniently than we judge others and to see ourselves as better than they are.

And yet Milgram’s series of experiments revealed that most people, in certain conditions, will act in ways they probably don’t personally believe are right. This is the norm, not the exception. But even though this reality could keep us awake at night, it is more reassuring, and insightful, to delve more deeply into how and why this is the case. As Milgram showed, the more we can distance ourselves from the reality of the suffering that our actions cause (or at least don’t prevent), the less bothered by the suffering we will be. Even if you are a dog lover, if someone approached you on the street and told you that there are thousands of dogs in shelters and asked if you wanted to adopt one, you’d probably say, “Not today” and keep on walking, but it’s much harder to say no to a shelter dog who is looking you right in the eye. Savvy nonprofits know that if they can show you the real-life human effects of your donation in a meaningful, personal way, they have a better shot at getting your compassion and empathy to kick in, and that your motivation to do the right thing is more likely to follow.