Stanley Milgram Essay

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Stanley Milgram (1933—84) was one of the most influential social psychologists of the twentieth century. Born in New York, he received a Ph.D. from Harvard and subsequently held faculty positions in psychology at Yale University and the City University of New York.

Milgram’s work was focused on the social-psychological aspects of social structure. He proposed that the mass killings of the Holocaust were primarily the result of the hierarchical bureaucratic organizations and the willingness of people to submit to legitimate authority. Milgram is known for his famous obedience experiments (1960—1963). Milgram recruited unsuspecting male research participants for a study on the effect of punishment on memory, which, in reality, was a well-designed experimental ruse. Participants were asked by an experimenter to assume the role of a teacher” who would read a series of word pairings, which a ”learner” (in reality an actor) was supposed to memorize. Using an electric generator, the experimenter instructed the teacher to apply punishing electric shocks and steadily increase the voltage each time the learner made a new mistake. As mistakes and the voltage of the shocks increased, the learner would increasingly complain and eventually stop responding altogether. Facing the learner’s reaction all teachers were agonizing over whether to proceed, repeatedly turning to the experimenter for direction. The experimenter replied with a scripted sequence of verbal prods encouraging the teacher to go on. Indeed, typically a majority of participants (65 percent in the first experiment) continued all the way to 450 volts, which would have likely electrocuted the learner had the generator been real.

Milgram’s experiments illustrate the powerful effect of the social structure: by accepting the role of teacher in the experiment, participants had agreed to accept the legitimate authority of the experimenter and carry out his instructions even when they had doubts. Though providing important insights, Milgram’s obedience studies are generally considered unethical because they exposed research participants to unacceptable levels of stress.


  • Milgram,    (1974)   Obedience   to   Authority: An Experimental View. Harper & Row, New York.

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