Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: Milgram, Stanley (1933–1984)
from The Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology and Behavioral Science

Stanley Milgram received his Ph.D. in social psychology from Harvard in 1960. He began his career as an Assistant Professor at Harvard, but was denied tenure (some think due to his obedience studies), and he moved to the Graduate Center of the City University of New York where he remained until his death. Using an auditory judgment task rather than the visual judgment task of the original Solomon Asch studies, Milgram compared the conformity levels of Norwegians and Frenchmen and found Norwegians to be more conforming.

His best-known studies were on the dynamics of obedience to authority. In these studies, a subject was commanded to give increasingly higher voltages of electric shock to a learner every time the latter gave a wrong answer on a verbal-learning task. The learner was an actor who feigned increasingly intense suffering with increases in shock levels. Milgram found an unexpectedly high rate of obedience. Milgram conducted more than 20 variations of this basic experiment. A full report of his research program on obedience to authority is found in Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View, which has been translated into 11 languages.

From the beginning, the obedience studies were embroiled in controversy—praised by some, vilified by others. Much of the controversy has to do with the ethics of deceiving participants into believing that they may have harmed an innocent human being. The obedience work became one of the best-known pieces of research in social sciences. The 1963 report became a citation class in 1981 and has been reprinted in dozens of anthologies.

Milgram went on to make a number of other original contributions. The following are brief summaries of the principal ones: in 1970 Milgram published the article “The experience of living in cities,” in which he introduced the concept of overload as a way to understand urban/rural differences in social behavior. In 1965, Milgram and colleagues introduced an unobtrusive way of measuring community attitudes and opinions. They scattered 400 “lost letters” throughout New Haven—on sidewalks, in phone booths, on car windshields. One hundred were addressed to Friends of the Nazi Party, Friends of the Communist Party, Medical Research Associates, and a Mr. Walter Camp. Although a majority of the latter two were mailed, only a minority of the first two letters were. This technique is the most widely used nonreactive measure of attitudes.

In 1967, Milgram introduced a technique of studying the small-world phenomenon, the not-uncommon situation of meeting someone in San Francisco, for example, who happens to know one’s first cousin in Toronto. In the small-world method, a sample of starters are given a packet that needs to reach a designated stranger, the target person, in another city, with the limitation that each person can send it to only someone he or she knows on a first-name basis. Milgram found that among completed chains it typically required only a small number of intermediaries—average ranged from 4.4 to 5.9—for the mail to reach the target. The technique is an important tool of social network researchers (Kadushin, 1989).

An integrative review of the whole corpus of Milgram’s work can be found in Blass (1992). Additionally, an updated version of most of Milgram’s published writings has been published (Sabini & Silver, 1992), and a symposium exploring Milgram’s contributions to social psychology was conducted at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association in Boston in 1990.

Suggested Readings
  • Blass, T. (1992). The man who shocked the world: The life and legacy of Stanley Milgram. New York: Basic Books.
  • Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority: An experimental view. New York: Harper Perennial.
  • Milgram, S. (1974). Psychology in today’s world. Boston: Little, Brown.
  • Milgram, S., Sabini, J., & Silver, M. (1992). The individual in a social world: Essays and experiments. New York: McGraw Hill.
    Copyright © 2010 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved.

    Related Articles

    Full text Article Milgram, Stanley
    Biographical Dictionary of Psychology

    Born : 1933, New York, USA Died : 1984, New York, USA Nat : American Ints : Personality and social, society for the psychological...

    Full text Article Stanley Milgram (1933-84)
    Key Thinkers in Psychology

    The murderous and systematic attacks on Jewish and other disfavoured communities in central Europe in the time of the Nazi regime in Germany...

    Full text Article Conformity and Obedience
    Encyclopedia of Violence, Peace and Conflict

    Introduction Historical Background Basic Research Conformity and Obedience in Political Mass Killing Public Views of the Role...

    See more from Credo