1984: The Scientist Who Caused Americans to 'Torture' Their Peers Dies

Horrified by his own results, Stanley Milgram concluded a Nazi-style death-camp could easily be manned by jes' folks.

David B. Green
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A student undergoing the Milgram test
A student undergoing the Milgram test.Credit: AFP
David B. Green

On December 20, 1984, Stanley Milgram, the social psychologist who, less than two decades after the Nuremberg Trials, had appalled the world and himself with the results of a study that looked at people's readiness to follow orders, even when those orders instructed them to inflict severe pain on others, died, at the age of 51.

To this day, there is disagreement about the ethical propriety of Milgram’s experiment, as well as about its scientific value. But there is little doubt that he got many millions of people, most of them outside the academic universe, to ponder their own reluctance to challenge authority and follow their own moral code – even when they are completely free to do all of those things.

Stanley Milgram was born on August 15, 1933, in the Bronx, New York. His father, Samuel Milgram, was a Hungarian-born master baker; his mother was the former Adele Israel, a Jewish immigrant from Romania. Samuel died in 1953, at age 51, and, according to Stanley’s biographer, Thomas Blass, the son often prophesied his own early demise.

Early interest in science, and obedience

Stanley was precocious and mischievous, and began doing scientific experiments at home from a young age. After graduating James Monroe High School, however, he studied political science at Queens College, earning his B.A. in 1954. Not surprisingly, when he applied to a Ph.D. program at Harvard in social psychology, he was turned down for not having taken a single psychology course in college.

With a combination of brilliance and perseverance, Milgram prevailed upon Harvard to reverse its decision, and he began a six-year doctoral program there, earning his Ph.D. in 1960.

It was during his first academic appointment, at Yale University, where he stayed for three years, that Milgram undertook his notorious experiments.  Later, he would note explicitly how “the influence of the Holocaust on my psyche energized my interest in obedience.”

He recruited subjects through a newspaper ad, telling them they would be participating in an experiment looking at how rewards and punishments affected an individual's ability to learn. In their case, they would be divided into pairs of “teachers” (the real subjects) and “learners” – actually, actors.

The teachers, i.e., the subjects, would read pairs of words to the learners, and ask them to recall them.

The learners were (supposedly) connected to electrodes. If they got questions wrong the teachers administered a shock (or thought they did).

As a student's errors accumulated, the intensity of the shock would be raised, by 15-volt increments, proceeding up to 450 volts. The actor-students would respond to the increasing pain by complaining, first mildly then sharply, before lapsing into silence.

If a teacher refused to continue, the lab-coat-wearing administrator would respond, "The experiment requires that you continue.”

In fact, though, nothing prevented a subject from simply walking out the door. Nonethless, Milgram’s tests showed overall that an average of 65 percent of subjects would continue to the end, up to 450 volts.

'Moral imbeciles'

The researcher himself was astounded and disturbed by the results. As Milgram wrote the following year, “I once wondered whether in all of the United States a vicious government could find enough moral imbeciles to meet the personnel requirements of a national system of death camps, of the kind that were maintained in Germany. I am now beginning to think that the full complement could be recruited here in New Haven."

In and of itself, Milgram’s research was undoubtedly meaningful, but he did not accompany his conclusions with any real theory to explain his results. Additionally, although the test included a significant debriefing and follow-up support for each participant, the scientist was criticized for the stress he subjected subjects to. Today, such a study could not be conducted in academia.

In 1967, Milgram, now something of an international celebrity, was hired by the Graduate Center of New York's City University to head its social psychology program. He remained there until his death, working on numerous studies, including one that attempted to check the average number of "degrees of separation" that existed between two randomly chosen Americans.

In 1961, Stanley Milgram married Alexandra Menkin a dancer who later became a social worker, with whom he had two children.