Stanley Milgram

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Stanley Milgram
Born (1933-08-15)August 15, 1933
New York City, New York, U.S.
Died December 20, 1984(1984-12-20) (aged 51)
Manhattan, New York, U.S.
Cause of death Heart attack[1]
Nationality American
Education Queens College, New York (B.A., Political Science, 1954)
Harvard University (Ph.D., Social Psychology, 1960)
Known for Milgram experiment
Small world experiment
Familiar stranger
Spouse(s) Alexandra Menkin Milgram
Parent(s) Samuel and Adele Milgram[2]

Stanley Milgram (August 15, 1933 – December 20, 1984) was an American social psychologist, best known for his controversial experiment on obedience conducted in the 1960s during his professorship at Yale.[3] Milgram was influenced by the events of the Holocaust, specifically the trial of Adolf Eichmann, in developing this experiment.

His small-world experiment while at Harvard would lead researchers to analyze the degree of connectedness, most notably the six degrees of separation concept. Later in his career, Milgram developed a technique for creating interactive hybrid social agents (cyranoids), which has since been used to explore aspects of social- and self-perception. He is widely regarded as one of the most important figures in the history of social psychology. A Review of General Psychology survey, published in 2002, ranked Milgram as the 46th most cited psychologist of the 20th century.[4]


Early life

Stanley Milgram was born in 1933 to a Jewish family in New York City,[5] the child of a Romanian-born mother, Adele (née Israel), and a Hungarian-born father, Samuel Milgram (1902-1953).[6][7] Milgram's father worked as a baker to provide a modest income for his family until his death in 1953 (upon which Stanley's mother took over the bakery). Milgram excelled academically and was a great leader among his peers. In 1954, Milgram received his bachelor's degree in political science from Queens College, New York where he attended tuition-free.[3] He applied to a Ph.D. program in social psychology at Harvard University and was initially rejected due to an insufficient background in psychology (he had not taken one undergraduate course in psychology while attending Queens College). He was eventually accepted to Harvard in 1954 after first enrolling as a student in Harvard's Office of Special Students.[3]

Professional life

In 1960, Milgram received a Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Harvard. He became an assistant professor at Yale in the fall of 1960. He served as an assistant professor in the Department of Social Relations at Harvard from 1963 to 1966 on a three-year contract. The contract was then extended for one additional year, but with the lower rank of a lecturer.[8] Most likely because of his controversial Obedience Experiment, Milgram was denied tenure at Harvard. In 1967 he accepted an offer to become a tenured full professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center.[3] Milgram had a number of significant influences, including psychologists Solomon Asch and Gordon Allport.[9] Milgram influenced numerous psychologists including Alan C. Elms, who was Milgram's first graduate assistant in the study of obedience.


Milgram died on December 20, 1984, aged 51, of a heart attack in New York, the city in which he was born. He left behind a widow, Alexandra "Sasha" Milgram, and two children.[10]

Obedience to authority

In 1963, Milgram submitted the results of his obedience experiments in the article "Behavioral Study of Obedience". In the ensuing controversy, the American Psychological Association held up his application for membership for a year because of questions about the ethics of his work, but eventually did grant him full membership. Ten years later, in 1974, Milgram published Obedience to Authority. He won the AAAS Prize for Behavioral Science Research in 1964, mostly for his work on the social aspects of obedience.[11] Inspired in part by the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, his models were later also used to explain the 1968 My Lai Massacre (including authority training in the military, depersonalizing the "enemy" through racial and cultural differences, etc.). He produced a film depicting his experiments, which are considered classics of social psychology.

An article in American Psychologist [12] sums up Milgram's obedience experiments:

"In Milgram's basic paradigm, a subject walks into a laboratory believing that s/he is about to take part in a study of memory and learning. After being assigned the role of a teacher, the subject is asked to teach word associations to a fellow subject (who in reality is a collaborator of the experimenter). The teaching method, however, is unconventional--administering increasingly higher electric shocks to the learner. Once the presumed shock level reaches a certain point, the subject is thrown into a conflict. On the one hand, the strapped learner demands to be set free, he appears to suffer pain, and going all the way may pose a risk to his health. On the other hand, the experimenter, if asked, insists that the experiment is not as unhealthy as it appears to be, and that the teacher must go on. In sharp contrast to the expectations of professionals and laymen alike, some 65% of all subjects continue to administer shocks up to the very highest levels."

More recent tests of the experiment have found that it only works under certain conditions; in particular, when participants believe the results are necessary for the "good of science".[13]

According to Milgram, "the essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person's wishes, and he therefore no longer sees himself as responsible for his actions. Once this critical shift of viewpoint has occurred in the person, all of the essential features of obedience follow." Thus, "the major problem for the subject is to recapture control of his own regnant processes once he has committed them to the purposes of the experimenter."[14] Besides this hypothetical agentic state, Milgram proposed the existence of other factors accounting for the subject's obedience: politeness, awkwardness of withdrawal, absorption in the technical aspects of the task, the tendency to attribute impersonal quality to forces that are essentially human, a belief that the experiment served a desirable end, the sequential nature of the action, and anxiety.

Milgram's obedience experiments came under severe attacks. Some critics argued that the validity of these experiments hinged on the acting ability of the learner and experimenter and that most subjects probably sensed the unreality of the situation. Others questioned the relevance of these artificial laboratory setting to the real world.

The most devastating criticisms involved the ethics of the basic experimental design. Professor Milgram, for his part, felt that such misgivings were traceable to the unsavory nature of his results: "Underlying the criticism of the experiment," Milgram wrote, "is an alternative model of human nature, one holding that when confronted with a choice between hurting others and complying with authority, normal people reject authority." [15]

Daniel Raver looks back:

"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."

Small world phenomenon

The six degrees of separation concept originates from Milgram's 1967 "small world experiment" that tracked chains of acquaintances in the United States. In the experiment, Milgram sent several packages to 160 random people living in Omaha, Nebraska, asking them to forward the package to a friend or acquaintance who they thought would bring the package closer to a set final individual, a stockbroker from Boston, Massachusetts. Each "starter" received instructions to mail a folder via the U.S. Post Office to a recipient, but with some rules. Starters could only mail the folder to someone they actually knew personally on a first-name basis. When doing so, each starter instructed their recipient to mail the folder ahead to one of the latter's first-name acquaintances with the same instructions, with the hope that their acquaintance might by some chance know the target recipient.

Given that starters knew only the target recipient's name and address, they had a seemingly impossible task. Milgram monitored the progress of each chain via returned "tracer" postcards, which allowed him to track the progression of each letter. Surprisingly, he found that the very first folder reached the target in just four days and took only two intermediate acquaintances. Overall, Milgram reported that chains varied in length from two to ten intermediate acquaintances, with a median of five intermediate acquaintances (i.e. six degrees of separation) between the original sender and the destination recipient.

Milgram's "six degrees" theory has been severely criticized. He did not follow up on many of the sent packages, and as a result, scientists are unconvinced that there are merely "six degrees" of separation.[16] Elizabeth DeVita–Raebu has discussed potential problems with Milgram's experiment.[17]

In 2008, a study by Microsoft showed that the average chain of contacts between users of its '.NET Messenger Service' (later called Microsoft Messenger service) was 6.6 people.[18]

Lost letter experiment

Milgram developed a technique, called the "lost letter" experiment, for measuring how helpful people are to strangers who are not present, and their attitudes toward various groups. Several sealed and stamped letters are planted in public places, addressed to various entities, such as individuals, favorable organizations like medical research institutes, and stigmatized organizations such as "Friends of the Nazi Party". Milgram found most of the letters addressed to individuals and favorable organizations were mailed, while most of those addressed to stigmatized organizations were not.[19][20]

Anti-social behavior experiment

In 1970-71, Milgram conducted experiments which attempted to find a correlation between media consumption (in this case, watching television) and anti-social behavior. The experiment presented the opportunity to steal money, donate to charity, or neither, and tested whether the rate of each choice was influenced by watching similar actions in the ending of a specially crafted episode of the popular series Medical Center.[20]


In 1977 Milgram began piloting an experimental procedure that aimed to operationalize the mind-body fusion fantasy explored in the Edmond Rostand play Cyrano de Bergerac. In the story, Cyrano supplies Christian with amorous prose so that they may jointly woo Roxane (each being incapable, given their respective physical and linguistic limitations, of doing so on their own).

Milgram trained speech shadowers to replicate in real-time spontaneous prose supplied by a remote “source” by-way-of discreet radio transmission during face-to-face dialogue with naïve “interactants.”[21] In homage to Cyrano, he referred to the hybrid agent formed by combining the words of one individual with the body of another as a “cyranoid.” In his studies, interactants repeatedly failed to detect that their interlocutors were merely speech shadowing for third parties, implicitly and explicitly attributing to them communicative autonomy. Milgram referred to this phenomenon as the “cyranic illusion.” This illusion held even in circumstances involving high disparity between shadower and source, such as when he sourced for child shadowers while being interviewed by panels of teachers (naïve to the deception) tasked with assessing each child's intellectual abilities.

Milgram hoped that the cyranoid method could evolve into a useful means of interactively exploring phenomena related to social behavior and self-perception (e.g., racial, gender, and age-based stereotyping and behavioral confirmation). Though he continued to develop the methodology through 1984 (the year of his death), he never prepared a formal publication detailing his cyranoid experiments.[22]

In 2014, Kevin Corti and Alex Gillespie, social psychologists at the London School of Economics, published the first replications of Milgram's original pilots.[23][24][25] Robb Mitchell has explored cyranoids as an experiential learning tool within the classroom (having children shadow for teachers during teaching exercises).[26] Cyranoids have also been used in installation art to explore social experiences whereby people encounter those familiar to them through the bodies of strangers.[27]

References in media

In 1975, CBS presented a made-for-television movie about obedience experiments: The Tenth Level with William Shatner as Stephen Hunter, a Milgram-like scientist. Milgram himself was a consultant for the film, though his personal life did not resemble that of the Shatner character. In this film, incidents were portrayed that never occurred in the followup to the real life experiment, including a subject's psychotic episode and the main character saying that he regretted the experiment. When asked about the film, Milgram told one of his graduate students, Sharon Presley, that he was not happy with the film and told her that he did not want his name to be used in the credits.

The French political thriller I... comme Icare includes a key scene where Milgram's experiment on obedience to authority is explained and shown.

In Alan Moore's graphic novel, V for Vendetta, the character Dr. Delia Surridge discusses Milgram's experiment without directly naming Milgram, comparing it with the atrocities she herself had performed in the Larkhill Concentration camps.

In 1986, musician Peter Gabriel wrote a song called "We do what we're told (Milgram's 37)", referring (mistakenly, it turns out) to the percentage of test subjects who refused to continue administering shocks. Gabriel's intent was optimistic: not everyone was willing to obey authority and shock to the highest level. The actual percentage was 35. Quoted in an article in SPIN magazine in September, 1986:

“At first this seems a very negative thing,” says Gabriel, “but I was comforted that some had the strength to rebel, and in the So version of the song, which I’ve been performing in concert since around 1980, the emphasis is shifted to the positive side.” [28]

The award-winning short film Atrocity (2005) re-enacts Milgram's Obedience to Authority experiment.

Milgram 18 was reproduced to test the participants in a 2008 television special "The Heist".[29] Created by Derren Brown and Andy Nyman for British station Channel 4, the Milgram experiment helped determine which candidates were the most responsive to authority. The four most responsive and psychologically sound candidates at the end of the show were indirectly given the opportunity to rob a (fake) armoured bank van.

In 2008, folk musician Dar Williams released a song called "Buzzer", in which the narrator participated in the Milgram experiment. After being debriefed, the narrator realizes that evil is not committed by an unreachable other, but instead ordinary people and every day.

The 2008 episode "Authority" of Law and Order: SVU has Sergeant John Munch mentioning Milgram's experiment in reference to corporate training at HappiBurger (a McDonalds-like restaurant). Likewise, Merritt Rook (portrayed by Robin Williams) poses as a "Detective Milgram" to convince a restaurant owner to molest an employee and drive the doctor that let his wife and infant child die to suicide. He later kidnaps Detective Olivia Benson, takes her to an old recording studio, and wires her to a battery. He tells her partner, Detective Elliot Stabler (played by Christopher Meloni) to push the button on his remote to shock Benson with anywhere from 2 to 2000 volts. Stabler then realizes that Rook is performing Milgram's experiment on him. Each time he (Stabler) refuses, Rook becomes more enraged. Finally, when Stabler says he can't hurt his partner, Rook calls him a human being and tells him that his partner was never in any actual danger.

The 2009 album, Avoid the Light, by German post-rock band Long Distance Calling, contains a song named "I Know you Stanley Milgram."

In March 2010, French television channel France 2 broadcast Jusqu'où va la télé, describing the results of a fake game show that they had run 80 times (each time independently, and with a new contestant and audience). The contestants received instructions to administer what they thought would be near fatal electric shocks to another "contestant" (really an actor) when that other contestant erred on memorized word-associations. Encouraged by the show's host and by an unprimed studio audience, the vast majority followed instructions even as the "victim" screamed.[30]

In 2010, luxury brand Enfants Perdus released a collection called "Milgram", in which the designers drew themes and inspiration from the Milgram experiment.[31] The design team has referenced the discussions about the human condition and the revelations of the human condition in numerous interviews.

In 2015, An experimental biopic about Milgram called Experimenter was released, directed by Michael Almereyda. Peter Sarsgaard stars as Stanley Milgram.

See also


  2. Raver, Daniel, "Bio: Stanley Milgram", Frostburg State University, Maryland. PSYography series.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Blass, T. (2004). The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram. ISBN 0-7382-0399-8
  4. Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  5. Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  6. Thomas Blass (November 2000). Obedience to Authority: Current Perspectives on the Milgram Paradigm. Psychology Press. p. 1. ISBN 0-8058-3934-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  8. "Stanley Milgram". Retrieved 2015-10-23.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Cary L. Cooper (2004-10-01). "A sparky study that tests your blind obedience". Times Higher Education. Retrieved 2009-07-25.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Goleman, Daniel (December 22, 1984). "Dr. Stanley Milgram, 51, Is Dead". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-08-07. Dr. Stanley Milgram, a psychologist widely known for his experiments on obedience to authority, died of a heart attack Thursday night at the Columbia Medical Center. He was 51 years old and lived in New Rochelle, N.Y. Dr. Milgram, who was a professor of psychology at the Graduate ...<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. History & Archives: AAAS Prize for Behavioral Science Research
  12. Nissani, Moti (1990). "A cognitive reinterpretation of Stanley Milgram's observations on obedience to authority". American Psychologist.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. "The Bad Show". WNYC. Retrieved 19 April 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Milgram, Stanley (1974). Obedience to Authority. New York: Harper & Row. pp. xii, xiii.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Milgram, Stanley (1974). Obedience to Authority. New York: Harper & Row. p. 169.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. "Could It Be A Big World After All?". Archived from the original on March 1, 2009. Retrieved 2009-06-22.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. Elizabeth DeVita–Raebu (2008-01-28). "If Osama's Only 6 Degrees Away, Why Can't We Find Him? | Human Origins". DISCOVER Magazine. Retrieved 2009-06-22.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  20. 20.0 20.1 "Stanley Milgram". Retrieved 2009-06-22.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. Milgram, S. (1984). Cyranoids. In Milgram (Ed), The individual in a social world. New York: McGraw-Hill
  22. Blass, T. (2004). The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram. New York: Basic Books
  23. Corti, K., & Gillespie, A. (2014). Revisiting Milgram's Cyranoid Method: Experimenting With Hybrid Human Agents. The Journal of Social Psychology. DOI: 10.1080/00224545.2014.959885
  24. Miller, G. (2014, September). If Someone Secretly Controlled What you Say, Would Anyone Notice? WIRED
  25. Neuroskeptic. (2014, September). Cyranoids: Stanley Milgram's Creepiest Experiment. Discover
  26. Mitchell, R. (2010). Teaching Via Human Avatar: Enlivening Delivery Through Students Acting as Proxies for Remote Lecturers. Paper presented at SOLSTICE 2010, Lancashire, United Kingdom.
  27. Mitchell, R., Gillespie, A., & O’Neill, B. (2011). Cyranic Contraptions: Using Personality Surrogates to Explore Ontologically and Socially Dynamic Contexts. Paper presented at DESIRE’11, Eindhoven, Netherlands.
  28. "Gabriel". Spin Magazine. Retrieved 2015-09-12.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  30. French contestants torture each other on TV Game of Death Daily Telegraph, 17 March 2010
  31. Enfants Perdus 2010-2011 F/W Milgram Enfants Perdus, 11 June 2010

Further reading

  • Milgram, S. (1974), Obedience to Authority; An Experimental View ISBN 0-06-131983-X
  • Milgram, S. (1977), The individual in a social world: Essays and experiments. 3rd expanded edition published 2010 by Pinter & Martin, ISBN 978-1-905177-12-7.
  • Blass, T. (2004). The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram. ISBN 0-7382-0399-8
  • Milgram, S. (1965), Liberating Effects of Group Pressure [1]
  • Milgram, S., Liberty; II. J., Toledo. R. and Blacken J. (1956). Response to intrusion in waiting lines. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 51, 683-9.
  • Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).

External links