Stanley Milgram
Researched and written by:  Daniel Raver
I attest that the following biography is a product of my own original work..

“A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act, and without pangs of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority.” (Milgram, as quoted in Blass, 2004, p. 100)

"I started with the belief that every person who came to the laboratory was free to accept or reject the dictates of authority.  This view sustains a conception of human dignity insofar as it sees in each man a capacity for choosing his own behavior.  And as it turned out, many subjects did, indeed choose to reject the experimenter’s commands, providing a powerful affirmation of human ideals... My feeling is that viewed in the total context of values served by the experiment, approximately the right course was followed... The laboratory psychologist senses his work will lead to human betterment, not only because enlightenment is more dignified than ignorance, but because new knowledge is pregnant with humane consequences." (Milgram, as quoted in Blass, 2004, p.128) 


Childhood/Family Life      

Stanley Milgram’s parents, Samuel and Adele Milgram, were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who moved to the Bronx, New York (Blass 2004).  Both had moved to the United States before Hitler’s rise to power and were considered warm, nurturing parents.  Samuel was a skilled baker who had studied in Germany and had served as a soldier during World War I.  Adele often worked in Samuel’s bakery.  Their first child was Marjorie; Adele gave birth to Stanley on August 15, 1933. Five years later, their second son, Joel was born.  Joel often collaborated with Stanley in playing jokes, including one elaborate ruse to convince a friend of Stanley’s that he was psychic (Blass, 2004).

            Milgram began to display his intelligence in kindergarten (Blass, 2004).  After listening to his mother help Marjorie study about President Lincoln one night, Stanley related everything he had learned to his kindergarten teacher when she asked the students about him.  The impressed teacher had Stanley go around to the other classes in the school to relate what he knew about Lincoln (Blass, 2004).

            Several events during Stanley’s youth provided a glimpse of his later life.  He showed an early interest in science rather than in sports.  Milgram experimented with a chemistry set, including an incident where he and some friends lowered into a river a container with enough sodium in it that the resultant explosion brought not only the children’s mothers but also fire trucks.  Later, he witnessed his neighbors protest for, and get, the street to be made into a one-way street after a child was struck by a passing car, a vivid example of the ability of people to affect others’ (city officials) actions, which would be the subject of much of his later work, including his conformity, obedience, and televised aggression experiments (Blass, 2004).

            Though Milgram’s interest in obedience may have been entirely scientific, as Blass (2004) indicates it may also have come from a more personal desire to understand what had happened in Germany and other Nazi controlled countries during World War II and the years immediately preceding it.   The subject of his Bar Mitzvah speech was the plight of the European Jews and the changes the events of World War II meant for Jewish people everywhere: an early showing of Milgram’s feeling of connection with the Jewish people who were persecuted under Hitler.  Though Blass does not mention it as related to Milgram’s interest in the power of authority, an event at his college seems very much related both to what happened to Jewish people under Hitler and to the results of his later obedience experiments.  While Milgram was at Queens College, a number of professors refused to testify during McCarthy’s Communist Party hearings, and were fired; few, if any, of the students complained to the administration.  In much the same way, few participants stopped the obedience experiments when they were not the ones pushing the switches that they believed shocked someone (Blass, 2004). 

            Stanley was a diligent worker, completing his high school degree in three years by taking heavy course loads and summer classes.  He also engaged in a number of extra-curricular activities.  Stanley attended Queens College, in large part because it was free, though it was highly ranked at the time.  While there, he majored in political science and maintained his diverse interests including drama, poetry, debating, and international relations.  Between his junior and senior years, he toured Europe for a summer.  During that summer, he fell in love for the first time; the studious Milgram had not dated at all during high school.  After receiving his B.A. in 1954, he attended Harvard’s Department of Social Relations, which he learned about through a professor’s recommendation.  This too, however, required diligence on Milgram’s part as he was initially rejected.  After spending the summer taking four psychology courses for credit and two as audits, Milgram was accepted as a special student, and following a year of taking graduate courses, was allowed into the department (Blass, 2004).

            The Department of Social Relations was a combination of social psychology, sociology, anthropology, and clinical psychology.  While there, he was mentored by Gordon Allport, and was a research assistant to Solomon Asch.  Asch’s influence on Milgram could be seen in his dissertation and his later famous obedience experiments.  Asch was conducting research on conformity, where he tested whether a subject would give a wrong answer in order to agree with a group of confederates.  For his dissertation, Milgram replicated this study, but turned it into a cross-cultural experiment by testing groups in Norway and France.  He found the Norwegians to conform more often than the French.  An interesting note, given the controversy surrounding his work, was that he debriefed participants in his dissertation research.  This included asking them for their thoughts on the ethics of the project, which was an unusual practice among psychologists at the time.  With his dissertation completed, he found work at Yale University (Blass, 2004).

Adult Life

           In the fall of 1960, Milgram began working as an assistant professor at Yale University.  While there, his first plan for research was to investigate how mescaline affected judgments about the aesthetics of art.  He had an interest in drugs both scientifically and personally and would occasionally use peyote, marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, or psilocybin.  The grant proposal for his study was declined, but he was already busy working on his plans to study obedience.  Milgram had wanted to make Asch’s, and his own similar research, more concrete.  Those studies had only shown conformity when choosing something Milgram considered unimportant, whether lines or tones were the same length; he wanted to know what would happen when the action was directly affecting another person.  Having finally come up with a method to test obedience in such a situation, he submitted grant proposals to the National Science Foundation, National Institute of Mental Health, and Office of Naval Research.  At the same time, he was preparing pilot studies with students from one of his classes.  Milgram again showed an unusual interest in research ethics by including in the grant proposal a section about the treatment of participants, stating that they would be debriefed to insure their well-being.  When the NSF approved the proposal in 1961, Milgram began his obedience experiments (Blass, 2004).

            The year the obedience study began was a good year for Milgram because he also met his wife Alexandra Menkin, who was a dancer and social worker.  They apparently lived a happy life, staying together until Stanley’s death, and writing romantic letters to each other during the times they were separated by Stanley’s work.  They had their first child Michelle in 1964.  Three years later, they had their second child, Marc.  Once the children were born, Sasha became a homemaker.  Though very busy with work, Milgram was a dedicated father, spending much time on playing games, taking trips, and talking with his children.  Stanley and Alexandra were also politically active, sending letters to a number of politicians as well as the school paper at whichever school Milgram was employed.  Despite this activism and interest in the problems of obedience to authority, Milgram was generally against the student protests of the 1960s and 1970s.  He considered these protests to be both too destructive and aimed at the wrong group, because they were conducted largely at schools (Blass, 2004).

            In the summer of 1963, Milgram was hired by Harvard to return to the Department of Social Relations, again as an assistant professor on a three year contract.  This contract was extended, in 1966, for one year as a lecturer, but he was not accepted for tenure at the end of the year.  Due to the controversy swirling around him from the obedience experiments and questions about the ethics involved in testing participants in such a stressful situation, few large universities made offers.  But the City University of New York, with its recently formed graduate program, offered him not only an entry directly into a full professorship, but also asked him to head the social psychology program for its Graduate Center.  This later became the social-personality program.  Through it all, the creative Milgram continued researching many and varied topics.  While at CUNY, in 1974, he published a book entitled Obedience to Authority, which covered all of the experimental conditions from his obedience experiments as well as his theory of why people obeyed the experimenter.  He also made a number of films, some based on his own work, others about social psychology in general and gave a large number of talks.  He stayed at CUNY, where he was a popular choice to mentor doctoral dissertations, until his death from his fifth heart attack in 1984 (Blass, 2004).

Professional Accomplishments

            Though Milgram’s obedience experiments are his most famous work, they are far from his only work.  Milgram gave around 140 talks in his career; two-thirds were on topics other than obedience.  The time Milgram used to write his Obedience to Authority was actually while on a Guggenheim Fellowship, which took him, with family, to Paris for one of his studies of mental maps. He made his own film about the obedience experiments, entitled appropriately Obedience.  CBS granted him a $260,000 dollars in funding to conduct a study on the effect of televised violence on aggression, which resulted in a book entitled Television and Anti-Social Behavior: Field Experiments, co-authored with his research assistant, R. Lance Shotland.   Later, he worked with Harry From to produce the movie, The City and the Self in 1972.  This movie was about Milgram’s “The Experience of Living in Cities,” which was an article about the differences in behavior brought about by urban environments.  This article was itself shortened from a speech he gave to the American Psychological Association’s 1969 convention.  He and From also collaborated to make four educational films about various aspects of social psychology (Blass, 2004).

Though obedience was his most famous research subject, Blass (2004) relates that Milgram investigated a number of other areas including the “small-world phenomenon.”  This is the idea that two people, who do not know each other, can be connected by a small number of acquaintances.  The idea originated elsewhere, but Milgram wanted to test it experimentally by having people try to send a folder to a person they did not know in a distant state only by giving the folder to people they knew.  While many of the folders never reached their destination, those that did averaged six connections to get the folder to its intended recipient.  Milgram also pioneered the lost letter technique, for polling a region without social desirability effects.  In it, letters addressed to fictitious groups indicating preference on an issue, such as politics, are left lying on the ground.  If significantly more letters are sent from a region to one side, such as the liberal sounding address, the region is determined to be liberal.  Finally, he also conducted a number of experiments on the urban life.  These included differences between city and rural life, finding that rural residents tended to be more helpful.  Further, while many urban people knew others by sight, they often did not feel an inclination to actually get to know those strangers.  Also, Milgram examined the way people organized their environment by testing “mental maps.”  In New York, he had participants look at pictures of sites and try to identify them.  In Paris, Milgram had residents draw maps of the city or explain where they would most likely meet someone (Blass, 2004).

            Milgram’s work appeared in a number of journals, including the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, Sociometry, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, as well as more popular magazines, such as Psychology Today.  While at Harvard, he was asked to write with Hans Toch (another professor) a chapter for the prestigious Handbook of Social Psychology, which Blass, in his biography of Milgram, asserts was one of his best pieces of writing. CUNY named him as Distinguished Professor of Psychology in 1980.  While he was there, he chaired 14 doctoral dissertations, which added to the two he had mentored at Harvard.  In 1983, he was selected to be a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (Blass, 2004).

Contributions to Psychology

            As evidenced by Blass’s (2004) coverage of the experiments, Milgram’s largest contribution to psychology was through his obedience experiments.  They so dominated his public image that frequently people would refer to the “Milgram experiments” and mean only his obedience studies.  The studies, through nineteen different conditions, demonstrated how easily human beings would hurt one another with neither personal gain nor malice and against their own morals.  The subjects continued to participate because an authority instructed them that it was acceptable (Blass, 2004). 

            To better understand the results, it is necessary to understand the experimental situation.  Participants were told initially that they were going to help with a study about the way learning was affect by punishment. There were always at least three people in the experiment, two of whom were actors hired by Milgram to play parts.  One played the experimenter, who was supposedly running the study and would instruct –but not compel- the participant to continue if he or she resisted.  The second actor played the “learner,” who answered questions asked by the participant, and who the participants believed that they punished when the “learner” answered incorrectly.  To carry out the punishment, participants were instructed to push switches on a large box which the experimenter told them sent different voltages of electricity to electrodes connected to the “learner’s” hand, however nothing actually happened to the “learner.”  The experiment’s participants were always the teacher, and were given questions to ask the “learner” and were instructed on how to punish the “learner.”  The box itself had switches labeled for 15 and 450 volts, with one switch for each 15 volt increment in between, with secondary labels for sets of switches such as “Intense Shock” (Blass, 2004).

            Among other factors, the conditions varied whether the participant could see the “learner” or not and the way the learner complained about the supposed shocks.  In a condition where the “learner,” was in another room and only complained twice by banging on the wall but said nothing, 65% of participants used all of the shock switches including ones marked “Danger Severe Shock” and “XXX”.  Even when the learner was in the same room and participants had to physically place the screaming “learner’s” hand on a shock plate to receive the supposed shocks and could see him resist and cry out in agony, 30% of participants continued through all the switches.  The condition bearing perhaps the greatest parallels to people not resisting authority, in which the participant did not have to push the shock switches but only helped in other ways while a third actor controlled the switches,  92.5% of the participants continued to the end (Blass, 2004).

The obedience experiments had many impacts beyond the actual results.  Despite Milgram’s concern for ethical treatment of his participants, many people harshly criticized the experiments.  Some critics even compared Milgram to the kind of destructive authority he was trying to study.  His experiments certainly contributed to the creation of the APA’s guidelines for treating participants and the government mandating the use of institutional review boards.  In his biography of Milgram, Blass also noted that social psychology is sometimes criticized as being unimportant, or only proving common knowledge.  However, the obedience experiments showed that both charges were untrue. Also, their amazing nature helped popularize social psychology specifically and psychology in general.  The experiments have been the subject of popular music, a TV movie, and Milgram’s book about the experiment was reviewed over 60 times including such popular outlets as the Los Angeles Times and London’s The Spectator (Blass, 2004).

Even though Milgram’s personal interests were diverse, his greatest contribution to psychology came through one set of experiments, but in that set he contributed monumentally.  He helped justify a science some dismiss as unimportant, contributed to the understanding of humanity, and, even if by way of attacks against him, contributed to the consideration of the treatment of research participants.

Blass, T. (2004). The man who shocked the world: The life and legacy of Stanley Milgram. New York:
           Basic Books.



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