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Stanley Milgram

American experimental social psychologist known for his innovative experimental techniques.

Stanley Milgram carried out influential and controversial experiments that demonstrated that blind obedience to authority could override moral conscience. His early studies on conformity were the first experiments to compare behavioral differences between people from different parts of the world. Milgram also examined the effects of television violence, studied whether New York City subway riders would give up their seats if asked to do so, and made award-winning documentary films.

Milgram, born in 1933 in the Bronx, New York, was the son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Samuel Milgram, a baker, and Adele Israel. Growing up in the Bronx, with an older sister and a younger brother, Milgram attended James Monroe High School and graduated from Queens College in 1954. He had a majored in political science and planned to enter the School of International Affairs at Columbia University to prepare for the Foreign Service. Instead, he enrolled in Harvard University's new interdisciplinary Department of Social Relations. There, Gordon Allport became his mentor and a series of fellowships enabled him to earn his Ph.D. in social psychology in 1960.

At Harvard, Milgram became Solomon E. Asch's teaching assistant. Asch was applying Gestalt psychology to social relations and designing experiments to examine conformity. For his doctoral research, Milgram spent a year in Norway and a year in France, exploring the cultural differences in conformity. He found that pressure for conformity was greater for Norwegians than for the French. After returning from France, Milgram worked with Asch at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.

Moving to Yale University in 1960, as an assistant professor of psychology, Milgram began his experiments on obedience, with funding from the National Science Foundation. Much to his surprise, he found that 65% of his subjects would inflict what they believed to be painful electric shocks on others, simply because they were told to do so.

Milgram married Alexandra "Sasha" Menkin, a psychiatric social worker, in 1961 and the couple eventually had a daughter and a son. Returning to the Department of Social Relations at Harvard in 1963 as an assistant professor of social psychology, Milgram used his "lost-letter technique" to study people's inclinations to help others when it wasn't required. These experiments examined whether subjects would re-mail lost letters. Milgram also addressed the "small-world problem," determining that any two individuals in the United States could reach each other via an average of five acquaintances.

In 1967, Milgram moved to the Graduate Center of the City University of New York as professor and chairman of the social psychology program. In 1970 he published "The Experience of Living in Cities," which had a major influence on the new field of urban psychology. He also examined how residents of New York and Paris perceived the geographies of their cities. One of Milgram's most unique social experiments, designed to study the effects of television violence, involved an episode of the CBS program "Medical Center," with subjects viewing one of three endings. He found that viewers watching a violent ending were no more likely than others to commit an antisocial act when given the opportunity. He also performed experiments with "cyranoids," intermediaries who communicated with someone using words from a third person. He found, for example, that listeners never suspected that an 11-year-old cyranoid's words were actually those of a 50-year-old professor. In 1980, in the midst of these experiments, Milgram suffered the first of a series of massive heart attacks. He died of his fifth heart attack in New York City in 1984, at the age of 51.

Margaret Alic

Further Reading

Milgram, Stanley. Obedience to Authority: an Experimental View. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.

Milgram, Stanley. The Individual in a Social World: Essays and Experiments. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1977.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaFamous Psychologists & Scientists