Logo IMG


Milgram's Progress

Robert Levine

The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram. Thomas Blass. xxiv + 360 pp. Basic Books, 2004. $26.

Stanley Milgram's experiments on obedience to authority—sometimes referred to as the "shock" studies—are the most influential and controversial in modern social psychology. They have affected fields as varied as law, business, medicine and the military. Plays, films and songs have been based on the experiments, and well-known authors such as Doris Lessing and Arthur Koestler have written about them at length. Within academic social psychology, it would be difficult to overestimate their impact. In social psychology textbooks, a significant study is usually described in just a couple of sentences, or at most a paragraph, but the obedience experiments nearly always receive pages of coverage.

In The Man Who Shocked the World, Thomas Blass, a professor of social psychology at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, has written the first-ever biography of Milgram. It will be a hard one to beat. Blass, a wonderful writer, is a skilled biographer and describes his subject with the knowing eye of an insider. And Milgram—a brilliant, inventive, slightly spooky Renaissance man—is a mesmerizing subject.

Social psychologist Stanley Milgram . . .Click to Enlarge Image

Milgram's contributions were remarkably numerous and varied during his abbreviated career (he died of a heart attack in 1984 at age 51). Some of the highlights: He conducted the experiments that led to the phrase "six degrees of separation" and devised methodological innovations such as the "lost letter" technique (pretending to accidentally lose letters addressed to various individuals or organizations and then seeing how many are picked up and mailed by people passing by). He also virtually invented the field of urban social psychology. And he conducted the largest-scale investigation ever on whether viewing violence on television leads to violent behavior, a study for which he persuaded CBS to modify the ending of a popular drama for showings in different cities.

But it is the obedience experiments (which he ran in the 1961–62 academic year, just after receiving his Ph.D.) for which Milgram will always be remembered, for better or for worse. The studies were inspired by Milgram's interest in the pathologies of the Holocaust. Specifically, he wondered why tens of thousands of ordinary German citizens willingly provided the manpower to carry out a massive killing program. He reasoned that when a type of behavior, no matter how evil, becomes "normal," an explanation for it can probably be found in features of the situation. In this case, he hypothesized, the toxic trigger for the behavior was obedience to authority.

Milgram recruited a diverse group of psychologically normal adult men to participate in a laboratory experiment supposedly designed to measure the effects of punishment on learning. Each subject was given the role of teacher and instructed to ask another ostensible subject (actually a research assistant who was a confederate of the experimenter) a series of questions. The subject in the role of teacher was instructed to administer an electric shock each time the "learner" made an error, beginning with a mild 15 volts and progressing in 15-volt intervals up to an eventual 450 volts, which was clearly marked as extremely dangerous. Although no shocks were actually administered, the situation was orchestrated to appear terrifyingly realistic. Midway through the experiment, the confederate, who was in an adjoining room where he could be heard but not seen, screamed out that he was having a heart attack; eventually, he ceased responding altogether. If the subject resisted administering shocks, the experimenter urged him on with statements like "It is absolutely essential that you continue" and "You have no choice. You must go on."

How many psychologically normal people would administer a 450-volt shock to someone who might be going into cardiac arrest as a result? When Milgram posed this question to others, the average estimate was no more than one in a hundred people. A group of psychiatrists guessed one in a thousand. Most people estimated that they themselves would break off at about 135 volts—at a point just before the supposed learner demands to be released. Almost none of those asked said that they would obey instructions to turn up the juice all the way to 450 volts.

A subject in Stanley Milgram's obedience experiment . . .Click to Enlarge Image

Astonishingly, however, Milgram found that a full 65 percent of the men (26 out of 40) went to 450 volts. Milgram then conducted an equally remarkable and elaborate series of follow-up studies in which he investigated how the subject's obedience was affected by such factors as the proximity of the experimenter, the proximity of the victim, the subject's sex and the presence of peers. Obedience varied from one condition to another but in almost every case was frighteningly high. In a television interview in 1979, Milgram said that he eventually came to the conclusion that "If a system of death camps were set up in the United States of the sort we had seen in Nazi Germany, one would be able to find sufficient personnel for those camps in any medium-sized American town."

The obedience studies indelibly changed our understanding of the Holocaust. In early explanations of the brutalities, Nazi leaders were demonized as pathological sadists and monsters. Hannah Arendt challenged this in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, which depicted Adolf Eichmann as a conventional bureaucrat trying to further his career. Milgram, having seen ordinary people submit to authority in his experiments, concluded that Arendt's perspective "comes closer to the truth than one might dare imagine." He argued that "the most fundamental lesson" of his findings was that "ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process."

In Blass's view, the truth about the Holocaust is more complex than this. Milgram's approach, Blass believes, "falls short when it comes to explaining the more zealous, hate-driven cruelties that also defined the Holocaust."

The obedience experiments had a profound impact within academic social psychology, altering the central message of the discipline itself. Social psychology at the time was caught up in "the trait/situation controversy," which questioned whether a person's behavior is more strongly determined by personality or by situation. Although the obedience experiments didn't directly answer this question, they showed just how powerful subtle, even invisible features of the situation could be. That we tend to underestimate the "power of the situation" has become the field's guiding thesis. Milgram wrote that "The social psychology of this century reveals a major lesson: often, it is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act."

The experiments also had fallout on the world of ethics. Virtually every university in the United States now has an Institutional Review Board that must preapprove studies using human subjects. Although the obedience studies aren't the only reason for these review boards, they are certainly Exhibit A. High-impact social-science studies that resort to deception and cause stress would not be approved today. Blass provides an excellent treatment of the ethics wars. It is enhanced by excerpts from the long-overdue interviews he conducted with Milgram's former subjects.

The book is a serious, scholarly biography, but Blass manages to fill it with delightful personal tidbits. We learn, for example, that one of Milgram's classmates at New York's Monroe High School was Philip Zimbardo, the Stanford professor who conducted what may be the second most famous (and most ethically criticized) study in the history of social psychology—the Stanford Prison Experiment, in which a group of otherwise normal college-aged men were confined to a mock prison in the basement of the psychology building and assigned roles as prisoners or guards. Zimbardo describes Milgram as one of the smartest students he graduated with: "the kind of kid who read the New York Times, while most others would be reading the Daily News."

Anyone who has faced the small-mindedness of tenure committees may find solace in Milgram's story. Several years after completing what were already the most widely influential experiments ever conducted in social psychology, Milgram was turned down for tenure at Harvard. When he went out on the job market, the offers didn't exactly come rolling in either. Eventually Milgram unenthusiastically accepted an offer from the City University of New York—a "second rung" university—where he spent the remainder of his career.

Late in life Milgram became passionate about filmmaking and produced the first artistically recognized film about social psychology. He saw the images of film as a means for transcending the scientific method. Here, perhaps, is the parting lesson for today's data-obsessed social psychologists from its most influential experimentalist: The complexities of social behavior cannot always be reduced to words, and certainly not to numbers.

Milgram knew all about complexity. Both personally and professionally, he spent his adult life as an object of admiration and awe to some and as a lightning rod for controversy and downright contempt to others. Blass captures it all in this penetrating, thought-provoking biography.

comments powered by Disqus

Connect With Us:


Sigma Xi/Amazon Smile (SciNight)

Subscribe to Free eNewsletters!

RSS Feed Subscription

Receive notification when new content is posted from the entire website, or choose from the customized feeds available.

Read Past Issues on JSTOR

JSTOR, the online academic archive, contains complete back issues of American Scientist from 1913 (known then as the Sigma Xi Quarterly) through 2005.

The table of contents for each issue is freely available to all users; those with institutional access can read each complete issue.

View the full collection here.


Of Possible Interest

Book Review: Pavlov's Perestroika

Book Review: Don't Try This at Home

Book Review: Stocking Nature’s Arsenal

Subscribe to American Scientist