Backstory and Context
Born in New York City in 1933, Stanley Milgram graduated from Queens College in 1954 and then earned a PhD at Harvard, where his doctoral research examined conformity. In 1962, Milgram accepted a professorship at Yale. During his time there, he conducted his experiments on obedience to authority.
Study participants were informed that the research was meant to explore how punishment affected learning and memory. They were given a series of word-pair questions to ask a "learner." Below is an excerpt from the experimental transcript. The "teacher" is the study participant who is ordered to ask questions and give electric shocks in response to wrong answers. The "learner" is the trained actor who must answer the teacher's questions and deliberately gets some wrong. The "experimenter" is the scientific authority giving orders to the teacher. Milgram remained out of sight, observing the teacher's behavior.
Learner: (who from the teacher's point of view is heard but not seen, an offstage voice) Ow, I can't stand the pain. Don't do that...
Teacher: (pivoting around in his chair and shaking his head) I can't stand it. I'm not going to kill that man in there. You hear him hollering?
Experimenter: As I told you before, the shocks may be painful, but--
Teacher: But he's hollering. He can't stand it. What's going to happen to him?
Experimenter: (his voice is patient, matter-of-fact) The experiment requires that you continue, Teacher.
Learner: Let me out of here. My heart’s bothering me! (Teacher looks at experimenter.)
Experimenter: Continue, please.
Learner: (screaming) Let me out of here, you have no right to keep me here. Let me out of here, let me out, my heart’s bothering me, let me out! (Teacher shakes head, pats table nervously.)
Teacher: You see, he’s hollering. Hear that? Gee, I don’t know.
Experimenter: The experiment requires...
Teacher: (interrupting): I know it does, sir, but I mean – hunh! He don't know what
he's getting in for. He’s up to 195 volts! (Experiment continues, through
210 volts, 225 volts, 240 volts, 255 volts, 270 volts, delivered to the man
in the electric chair, at which point the teacher, with evident relief, runs
out of word-pair questions.)
Experimenter: You’ll have to go back to the beginning of that page and go through them again until he’s learned them all correctly.
Teacher: Aw, no. I’m not going to kill that man. You mean I’ve got to keep going up with the scale. No sir. He’s hollering in there. I’m not going to give him 450 volts.
Experimenter: The experiment requires that you go on.
Teacher: What if he’s dead in there? (Gestures toward the room with the electric chair.) I mean, he told me he can’t stand the shock, sir. I don’t mean to be rude, but I think you should look in on him. All you have to do is look in the door. I don’t get no answer, no noise. Something might have happened to the gentleman in there, sir.
Experimenter: We must continue, please.
Teacher: You mean keep giving him what? Four hundred fifty volts, what he’s got
Experimenter: That’s correct. Continue. The next word is “White.”
Teacher: (now at a furious pace) "White—cloud, horse, rock, house.” Answer,
please. The answer is “horse.” Four hundred and fifty volts. (Zzumph!)
Next word, “Bag—music, clown, girl.” The answer is "paint." Four
hundred and fifty volts. (Zzumph!) Next word is “Short—sentence,
Experimenter: Excuse me, Teacher have to discontinue the experiment.
(Enter Milgram from camera’s left. He has been watching from behind one-way glass.)
Milgram: I’d like to ask you a few questions. (Slowly, patiently he dehoaxes the
teacher, telling him that the shock screams were not real.)
[Stanley Milgram 1965, distributed by Penn State Media Sales; quoted in Philip Meyer's 1970 article for Esquire]
Milgram's research indicated that a large number of people would, despite misgivings and protests, obey an authority figure and inflict severe pain and harm on others. 65% of the participants in his initial experiments obeyed the experimenter's order to deliver a 450-volt shock. These results suggested that there was nothing different or unusual about Germans that could explain Nazi atrocities; the American men in Milgram's experiment exhibited a similar tendency to obey orders. His research remains famous for its unsettling implication that anyone has the potential to commit acts of extreme evil.
Criticism of the Study and the Development of Research Ethics
Critics of the study asserted that it was unethical to subject study volunteers to intense psychological stress, particularly without their knowledge or consent. The Milgram experiment was one of many during the 20th century that prompted scientists to reevaluate ethical standards. These other experiments include:
- Medical experiments performed on unconsenting subjects during WWII. Nazi doctors used people in concentration camps as research subjects for an array of horrifying experiments. Japanese doctors performed similar research on prisoners of war and deliberately caused epidemics.
- Tuskegee Syphilis Study, Alabama, 1932-1972, in which treatment for syphilis was withheld from study participants, low-income African-American men.
- Willowbrook Study, New York, 1963-1966, in which researchers intentionally infected children living in the Willowbrook State Hospital with hepatitis.
- San Antonio Contraceptive Study, Texas, 1971, which recruited approximately 70 low-income Mexican-American women who were told that the study was focused on side effects of oral contraceptives. What they didn't know was that half of the study volunteers simply received a placebo (and the halves were swapped over the course of the study). 10 volunteers had unplanned pregnancies as a result.
- Tearoom Trade Study, mid-1960s, conducted by Laud Humphreys for his PhD dissertation entitled "Tearoom trade: a study of homosexual encounters in public places." His study was criticized for invading privacy and supplying personally identifying details on the men he studied.
New standards for ethical research emerged in the wake of various scandals and public outcries. The Belmont Report, published in 1979, established fundamental principles for conducting ethical research involving human subjects. Its three core principles are:
1) Respect for persons
Furthermore, the Report highlighted the importance of informed consent and respect for privacy, and instructed researchers to avoid exploiting marginalized or vulnerable populations. The Report remains in force today, informing the ethical decisions made by institutional review boards (IRBs) regarding ethical research with human participants.
"The Belmont Report." U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. April 18, 1979. Accessed May 11, 2017. https://www.hhs.gov/ohrp/regulations-and-policy/belmont-report/index.html.
DeLanda, Bertha. "The Belmont Report: History, Principles and Application." Stanford University. May 2009. Accessed May 11, 2017. http://humansubjects.stanford.edu/education/2009_05_Belmont.pdf.
Harris, Malcolm. "The Psychology of Torture." Aeon. October 07, 2014. Accessed May 10, 2017. https://aeon.co/essays/is-it-time-to-stop-doing-any-more-milgram-experiments.
Kim, Won Oak. "Institutional review board (IRB) and ethical issues in clinical research." Korean Journal of Anesthesiology 62 (2012): 3-12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3272525/.
Marsden, Serena, and Melissa Melander. "Historical Cases of Unethical Research." University of North Dakota. Accessed May 11, 2017. https://www.und.edu/instruct/wstevens/PROPOSALCLASS/MARSDEN&MELANDER2.htm.
McLeod, Saul. "The Milgram Experiment." Simply Psychology. 2007. Accessed May 11, 2017. https://www.simplypsychology.org/milgram.html.
Meyer, Philip. "If Hitler Asked You to Electrocute a Stranger, Would You?." Esquire. February 1970. http://www.unc.edu/~pmeyer/General_Publications/Hitler.pdf.
Miller, Heather. "Stanley Milgram." Muskingum College. May 1997. Accessed May 11, 2017. http://muskingum.edu/~psych/psycweb/history/milgram.htm.
Prawdzik, Ben. "Milgram experiment, 50 years on." Yale Daily News, November 28, 2011. http://yaledailynews.com/blog/2011/09/28/milgram-experiment-50-years-on/.
Romm, Cari. "Rethinking One of Psychology's Most Infamous Experiments." The Atlantic. January 28, 2015. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/01/rethinking-one-of-psychologys-most-infamous-exper....