Stanley Milgram was a controversial social psychologist whose legacy is one of the most important in that field. His controversial experiments on obedience demonstrated to what extent the human being is capable of obeying some kind of authority.
His experiments have been the subject of numerous criticisms for his dubious ethics. In addition, his work opened the debate that helped generate the ethical procedures in which this type of research can be developed today.
Stanley Milgram coined the term “agentic state,” a state in which people perform actions contrary to their own values. His research demonstrated the dangerousness of the predisposition that humans have to obey the authority until we get rid of our sense of responsibility.
In 1963, the scientific community went into a rage following the experiment that Stanley Milgram carried out at Yale University. Milgram had recruited a group of students who had been instructed to follow the indications of a supposed scientific authority ordering them to apply electric shocks on other people.
Actually, everything was a pantomime and nobody received any electric shock. But the truth is that the subjects who were not part of the plot were dedicated to follow the instructions to the letter and applied lethal electric shocks again and again. In some cases, these were discharges of sufficient magnitude to illuminate half of Europe for several days.
To what extent is a person willing to act against their own values by obeying authority? This was the question that Stanley Milgram wanted to answer with his experiments, and his results were most revealing, in addition to becoming a scandal for the scientific community.
He was born in New York in August 1933. Already in his childhood he was a brilliant student and forged a character as a leader from a young age. One of his classmates from high school would be Philip Zimbardo, another extraordinary social psychologist. Stanley Milgram did not go into psychology until later; first, he graduated in Political Science from Queens College in 1954.
Finished his studies in Politics, he became interested in psychology and obtained a PhD in Psychology from Harvard University under the direction of Gordon Allport. During the time that his postgraduate studies lasted, Stanley Milgram worked with Solomon Asch as a research assistant.
It was the time when Asch developed the experiment of conformity of the groups about the length of a line. From this moment, interest in the study of groups and conformity within the framework of social psychology never left Milgram.
The experiments of Stanley Milgram
Milgram started working at Yale in 1960 and, a year later, began to develop his social obedience experiments. The experiments consisted of a central authority figure ordering participants to administer electric shocks to another person each time they answered a question wrongly.
The person who supposedly received the discharges was an accomplice, but the one who had to punish her did not know it. Up to 65% of the total participants were willing to administer electric shocks to another person in lethal voltages. And they did it only because the ‘expert’ indicated to them that they should do it.
In 1963, the scandal erupted at Yale and, as a result, Milgram was fired and demonized. His alleged lack of ethics had marred one of the most important social experiments developed in the twentieth century.
After leaving Yale, Stanley Milgram led a new social psychology program at City University in New York. In 1974, he published his book Obedience to authority, an obligatory classic that is still studied in all the faculties of psychology of the world.
Stanley Milgram worked at the City University of New York until his death on December 20, 1984.
Contributions to psychology
Stanley Milgram conducted a total of nineteen experiments on obedience to authority. It is true that Milgram always took special care over the participants of their experiments. Despite this, his research work was harshly criticized for the negative emotional impact he had on the subjects who participated.
From his work the American Psychological Association, he immersed himself in the ethical standards to work with people in the experiments and the review boards were created.
Milgram’s research on obedience shocked the academic world for more than a decade. Currently, with the standards that psychological research works, this experiment could never have been carried out.
Although there have been replicas within the regulations that have supported the results of Milgram on how obedience to authority inhibits individuals from their own conscience and responsibility.
In short, despite the confrontation between ethics, morals and science, the truth is that Milgram’s experiments have served for countless studies and research.