Milgram’s Progress

Wednesday, December 28th, 2005

Milgram’s Progress describes the work of the scientiest responsible for the famous “shock” studies:

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.

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.”

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