3034 Milgram, Stanley (experiments)

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Milgram, Stanley
(experiments)

Markus Kemmelmeier

Stanley Milgram was one of the most influen
tial social psychologists of the twentieth cen
tury. Born in 1933 in New York, he obtained a
BA from Queens College, and went on to
receive a PhD in psychology from Harvard.
Subsequently, Milgram held faculty positions
in psychology at Yale University and the City
University of New York until his untimely
death in 1984. Although Milgram never held a
formal appointment in sociology, his work was
centrally focused on the social psychological
aspects of social structure.
Milgram is mostly recognized for his
research on obedience to authority. As many

social scientists of his time and as a Jew him
self, Milgram was deeply influenced by the
experience of the Holocaust. Based on earlier
work of his mentor Solomon Asch (190796),
Milgram suspected that notions of an aggres
sive personality or authoritarian cultural traits
were not sufficient to explain the mass murder
of the Holocaust. Rather, he suspected that the
hierarchical structure of bureaucratic organiza
tions and the willingness of people to submit to
legitimate authority provided a more plausible
explanation of why so many educated and civi
lized people contributed to barbaric torture and
mass killings.
In a historic coincidence, in 1961, just as
Milgram was about to begin work on his
famous obedience experiments, the world wit
nessed the trial of Adolf Otto Eichmann, a
high ranking Nazi official who was in charge
of organizing the transport of millions of Jews
to the death camps. To many, Eichmann
appeared not at all to be the fervent anti Semite
that many had suspected him to be; rather, his
main defense was that he was only following
orders as an administrator. To the political
theorist Hannah Arendt, Eichmanns case illu
strated the banality of evil, in which personal
malice appeared to matter less than the desire
of individuals to fulfill their roles in the larger
context of a bureaucracy. Milgrams research is
arguably the most striking example to illustrate
this dynamic.
Milgram planned and conducted his obedi
ence experiments between 1960 and 1963 at
Yale University. In order to be able to study
obedience to authority, he put unsuspecting
research participants in a novel situation, which
he staged in the laboratory. With the help of
actors and props, Milgram set up an experi
mental ruse that was so real that hardly any of
his research participants suspected that, in rea
lity, nothing was what it pretended to be.
For this initial study, using newspaper
ads promising $4.50 for participation in a psy
chological study, Milgram recruited men aged
20 to 50, ranging from elementary school drop
outs to PhDs. Each research participant arrived
in the lab along with another man, white and
roughly 30 years of age, whom they thought to
be another research participant. In reality, this
person was a confederate, that is, an actor in
cahoots with the experimenter. The experimenter