Contributed by Charity Smith
In July 1961, in a basement in New Haven, Connecticut, newly-minted psychologist Stanley Milgram gave the prod for the first (faux) “shock” felt ‘round the world. Milgram, a first-year professor at Yale, set up shop in the University’s Linsly-Chittenden Hall—home to what would become one of the most famed experiments in the history of American psychology.
Like any good social psychologist, Milgram’s interest in the study of obedience was likely influenced by a healthy mix of both the person and the situation. For Milgram, that meant the combination of his academic heritage and events occurring on the world’s stage. Milgram was a student of pioneering personality psychologist, Gordon Allport, before assisting social psychologist Solomon Asch, in studying “group think” and conformity. From 1959-1960, Milgram watched subject after subject forego their own conclusions and conform to majority rule.
As Milgram’s time with Asch was ending, the 1960 trial of Nazi war criminal, Adolf Eichmann, was just beginning. His defense was the same heard at the Nuremberg trials, over a decade earlier: he was just following orders. For Milgram, the case of Eichmann added a layer of moral complexity not found in Asch’s study—one that begged the question: how far will we go to adhere to authority, even when it violates our moral code? Thus, at the intersection of Asch and Eichmann, Milgram’s Obedience to Authority study was born.
In Obedience and Authority, Milgram (1974) wrote: “Could it be that Eichmann, and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?” Ostensibly, this frames Milgram’s research questions as centering on the motivation that drove the Nazis to commit the horrific atrocities of WWII—questions that ask about what those people did, why they were driven to savagery. However, the crux of these questions has less to do with them and more to do with us. What Milgram (and the rest of the world) really wanted to know was: Are we really all that different?
As it turns out, we’re not. And, as for the original “how far?” question, the answer is: too far. Using a simulated shock generator—which participants believed would deliver actual current to an unseen person (also simulated) when they flipped the switch—Milgram added an important variable to the study of conformity: human suffering. Of participants, 100% were willing to obey authority, even when doing so meant causing physical harm; 65% were willing to continue to obey, knowing the consequences could be grave.
Fifty-five years later, both psychology and the world-at-large remain fascinated with Stanley Milgram’s study of obedience. In fact, his simulated shock generator is likely our most photographed artifact. In 2009, Dr. Jerry Burger, social psychologist at Santa Clara University, posed essentially the same question as Milgram’s initial query: Are we any different? With findings in-line with those observed in 1961, Burger’s replication of Milgram’s work yielded a succinct answer which, hopefully, gives us all cause for pause: No. No we are not.