Stanley Milgram was a renowned, if controversial, psychologist, most famous for his experiments on the impact of authority on the decisions of ordinary people. With his experiments being the product of his time, influenced by the historical events of the Holocaust, his questions and methods remain relevant today regarding not only scientific discovery but also ethics. Despite the barbarism of some experiments compared to the modern-day, their implications remain crucial to understanding personal responsibility.
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Perceiving the work of Stanley Milgram in a historical context requires knowledge of his origins and biography, considering culture and family, not only his academic status. Milgram was born in the USA on August 15, 1933, the child of an émigré Romanian and Hungarian Jewish couple, and died on December 20, 1984, a tenured professor (Perry, 2013). In 1961, he married Alexandra Milgram, a woman who later helped with the production of films relating to her husband’s work, and provided archival footage for other relevant media works on the topic (“Alexandra Milgram,” 2018; Perry, 2013). Jewish heritage enticed Milgram to study factors that influenced people to go against their conscience, a contextually acute paradigm for society after the Second World War and the fall of the German Nazi regime.
Milgram did not achieve his status within the scientific community easily, his troubles starting with his steps in furthering his education. Having received a bachelor’s degree in political science, Milgram soon became more interested in psychology and endeavored to pursue a Ph.D. at Harvard, succeeding only on his second application attempt (Perry, 2013). His experiments allowed him to examine not only scientific queries but also permitted him to exercise a certain degree of creativity and ingenuity. Despite earning his Ph.D. in 1961 and serving as an assistant professor at Yale and Harvard, the American Psychological Association rejected Milgram’s application due to ethical complaints regarding his experiments (Russell, 2014). This debasing of Milgram, who was scientifically educated in the style of his predecessors, marked a shift in the implemented psychological approaches.
Milgram conducted numerous experiments hinging on authority and positive and negative personal perceptions of specific organizations or individuals, such as the lost letter experiment (1963). The investigation relied on people forwarding letters found abandoned, but bearing a final address, with the theory being that individuals would willingly forward messages that were destined to institutions they supported (Perry, 2013). Cyranoids (1977), another experiment by Milgram, tested the perceptiveness of people to speech shadowing when people would say something in conversation that third parties had radio-relayed to them (Perry, 2013). This was a concept that inspired exploration even today, with the TV series Black Mirror examining this concept through their technology-scrutinizing approach (Tibbetts, 2014). Less controversial yet popular research was the small-world experiment (1967), which demonstrated how, on average, information traveled through a social chain of six people and reached the intended, but unknown to the initiator person (Perry, 2013). However, all these experiments could be considered minor, as they were conducted after Milgram’s first main investigation of authority and responsibility.
The experiment, which gained the most coverage and garnered the most controversy, costing the researcher his reputation, was the so-called Milgram experiment (1963). Milgram was fascinated with the ways, in which “ordinary people, simply, doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, [became] agents in a terrible destructive process” (Milgram, 2017, p. 203). People were required to ask questions, and to shock those answering for wrong replies, and received commands to continue doing so, despite the voltage and protests of recipients increasing with each wrong answer (Russell, 2014). This experiment relied on the willingness of people to go against their conscience with the support of authority, and hence they, in their mind, being absolved of blame for their actions.
Critique and Application
The obvious criticism of the Milgram experiment lies primarily in ethics, despite no harm coming to those supposedly getting shocked by electricity, but them merely acting out the pain. Nonetheless, the research was considered inhumane, due to “failure to obtain the participants’ informed consent, supplanting their right to withdraw, potentially inflicting on them physiological and psychological harm” (Russell, 2014, p. 198). Downplaying the damage inflicted on interpersonal relationships between those participating in the experiment, with most of the participants having some connection with each other (i.e., friends, relatives) is close to impossible. Another critique lies in the fact that the partakers could have skewed the results in their confusion by the situation, them not believing what was happening, or sensing the tester’s expectations (Russell, 2014). This implication paints the results, with many of the participants continuing to administer shocks up to high voltages, in a completely different light than before.
Nonetheless, the experiment seems borderline on taking psychological advantage of participants, even though considering the research out of historical context would be detrimental to its analysis. The application of it in today’s world, with such experimentation being unthinkable, would nonetheless be demonstrative of individual responsibility and maybe even mob mentality. The function of the Milgram experiment can be seen in any common aspect that stems from a lack of a personal moral compass: from corporate mentality to the belief that laws are just by existence.
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The contribution of Stanley Milgram to psychology cannot be downplayed, with his numerous experiments continuing to attract interest even today. The humanity of them remains debatable, even since their original publications, but this does not diminish their scientific importance. This willingness to accept Milgram’s experiments as significant, if callous, maybe a reflection of the concept he was trying to prove: that the advancement of an idea is more important, and hence absolves accountability.
Alexandra Milgram. (2018). Web.
Milgram, S. (2017). How good people do bad things. In R. Betts (Ed.), Conflict after the cold war: Arguments on causes of war and peace (5th ed.) (pp. 200-207). New York, NY: Routledge.
Perry, G. (2013). Behind the shock machine: The untold story of the notorious Milgram psychology experiments (Rev. ed.). New York, NY: New Press.
Russell, N. (2014). Stanley Milgram’s obedience to authority “relationship” condition: Some methodological and theoretical implications. Social Sciences, 3(2), 194-214. Web.
Tibbetts, C. (Director). (2014). White Christmas (Black Mirror) [Video file]. Web.