Stanley Milgram was a 20th century social psychologist who conducted research into social influence and persuasion. His experiments in obedience remain some of the most frequently cited and controversial in the history of the field.
Stanley Milgram was born in New York City in 1933. He studied political science at Queens College and went on to attend Harvard, where he studied under Gordon Allport and Solomon Asch and earned his PhD in social psychology in 1960.
In 1961, Milgram became an assistant professor at Yale University, and he began studying obedience, using methods that caused much controversy. He published the results of his research in 1963, and critics questioned the moral and ethical nature of his studies. This study ultimately earned him a sociopsychological award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1965. Milgram is also known for the lost-letter technique and the small-world problem that he developed while teaching at Harvard University, between 1963 and 1967. The results of both have been conceptualized in the term “six degrees of separation.”
Milgram joined the City University of New York in 1967, where he was the head of the social psychology doctoral program. From 1980 until his death in 1984, Milgram taught at the City University Graduate Center as a distinguished professor.
Contribution to Psychology
Milgram conducted a series of psychological experiments to gauge the level of obedience that a participant would display to an authority figure when that figure assigned them tasks that conflicted with their moral and ethical codes. In the experiment, volunteers participated in what they believed to be a study testing punishment’s effect on learning and memory. The volunteers administered electric shocks that they believed to be harmful and potentially fatal to an unwilling stranger, who was in fact, an actor who received no shocks. An authority figure in a lab coat instructed and compelled the volunteers to administer the electric shocks that gradually escalated in intensity. The actor-victim screamed in pain and begged for the shocks to stop. The majority of research participants, however reluctant, continued to administer purportedly high-voltage shocks when instructed to continue. When the experiment was over, the participants were informed that no electric shock had been transmitted.
The experiment is often cited as evidence of the power of peer pressure, and the results of the study were used to evaluate abhorrent behavior, such as the atrocities of the Holocaust. Milgram theorized that the atrocities were carried out in obedience to authority by Nazi officials who were simply following orders.
Milgram also conducted studies to determine how many “degrees of separation” there were between any two people; in other words, how many people did it take to create a link between two strangers? To test his theory, Milgram selected someone in a major city, like Boston, to be his “target.” He instructed other people, in places like Nebraska, to forward official-looking documents on to someone they knew on a first-name basis in Boston. The recipient was instructed to send the papers on, and so forth, until the documents reached Milgram’s targeted person. The course the packages took to get to the target person varied from 2 to 10 individuals, but on average, it took 6 people to get the package to the target. Milgram termed this the “small-world phenomenon.” The experiment remains the subject of criticism because Milgram did not follow up on all packages and did not use a random sample. While the “six degrees” phenomenon is well-known in popular culture, it is not a proven scientific theory.
Milgram was also an early researcher into the effects of media on behavior. He attempted to demonstrate that media played a role in aggressive and anti-social behavior by exposing subjects to popular media, then offering them an opportunity to engage in unethical behavior. Milgram, however, was unable to find a correlation between consuming violent or immoral media and unethical behavior.
- Jackson, Kenneth T. (Ed.), Markoe, Arnold (Ed.), and Markoe, Karen (Ed.). (1998). Milgram, Stanley. The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Vol. 1: 1981-1985. Retrieved from http://www.gale.cengage.com/InContext/bio.htm
- Kleinfeld, J. (2002, Mar). Six degrees of separation: Urban myth? Psychology Today, 35, 74. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/214485577?accountid=1229