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My summer with Stanley Milgram
Stanley Milgram, right, talks with a study participant during his shock experiment in the 1960s.
December 9th, 2011
12:10 PM ET

My summer with Stanley Milgram

Editor's note: Alan Elms was the research assistant of social psychologist Stanley Milgram during Milgram's famous shock experiment in the 1960s, which tested participant's obedience to authority.

During my first several weeks as Stanley Milgram’s research assistant, I did the sorts of things that research assistants often do.

I transcribed Milgram’s dictations and drafts of research procedures into neatly typed pages. I began to keep files of research volunteers: Their age, educational background, occupation, address and phone number. I helped Milgram audition amateur actors for the important role of “experimenter” and the nearly-as-important role of “learner,” the research confederate whom we started to call the “victim.”

The real volunteers would be playing the role of “teacher” in what appeared to be an experiment where electric shocks were used to speed the learning of simple word pairs. As you probably know by now, 50 years later, the victim only pretended to be shocked and the experiment really measured obedience to authority.

When everything was ready for the first volunteers to assume the role of teacher and for the pretend-learner to become the victim, Milgram celebrated by inviting me to join him behind the large two-way mirrors in the Social Interaction Lab.

Observing the unfolding drama as I sat beside Stanley was not part of my official job description. But for the rest of that 1961 summer, I would work all day at scheduling subjects and doing other necessary support tasks, walk to my nearby apartment for a quick dinner, then return to the lab to watch what would happen next.

Neither Stanley nor I had any clear idea what moral dramas the next several hours would display. But in contrast to the artificial circumstances of most psychological experiments I had studied in graduate school until then, this felt like real life - this situation where every subject had to decide over and over again whether to administer the next higher shock on the shock board to another human being who was screaming in apparent pain.

Charting the psychology of evil, decades after 'shock' experiment

What sorts of decisions did we see the teachers make? Over and over again they chose to obey the experimenter’s commands to shock the victim whenever he failed to remember the correct word pair. And on command they administered higher and higher voltage levels - or so the labels on the shock machine’s switches said, and the victim’s increasing screams appeared to confirm those levels.

Stanley and I had both expected modest levels of obedience at most. These were, after all, ordinary middle-class Americans, not chosen for either sadistic or rebellious tendencies.

But all teachers in the basic experimental situation went at least to 300 volts on the shock board, approaching the level labeled “Extreme Intensity Shock.” A stunning two-thirds of teachers obeyed all the way to the end of the shock board - 450 volts, “Danger Severe Shock X X X,” the red-lettered labels said.

Some subjects wept as they administered the higher-level shocks. Others smirked or giggled or laughed hysterically; still others sweated profusely or clenched their teeth or pulled their hair. But for the most part they obeyed.

Stanley and I were both appalled at such levels of obedience, but we could not ignore or deny what we saw. The subjects were sitting there right in front of us, very visible through the two-way mirrors in the bright laboratory illumination as their fingers depressed one shock switch after another.

Stanley Milgram remained a valued friend and mentor to me and to many others until his death at age 51, from a heart attack much like the one that had killed his father at a similar age. Stanley wrote clearly and thoughtfully about his research, especially in his book "Obedience to Authority" and his collection of essays, "The Individual in a Social World."

I have been granted two decades longer to continue my own research and writing, some of it related to obedience, much of it struggling to understand the pioneering geniuses in a variety of fields. Most of my writing about the genius of Stanley Milgram can be found on my website, http://starcraving.com, especially in the section titled “Social Psychology.”

For more on Alan Elms' experience, watch “Sanjay Gupta, M.D." at 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday and Sunday.


soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. Alan Elms

    Sorry, but the photo caption is wrong - that's not Stanley Milgram but John Williams, a high school teacher who was hired by Dr. Milgram to play the role of Experimenter throughout most of the obedience experiments. Milgram decided early on that he himself was too short to come across as authoritative (he was around 5' 7"), and I was too young at the time (22; Milgram was only 27).

    December 9, 2011 at 21:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. autumnofburnoutcommie67

    How about such organizations as the Judge Rotenberg Center? What they engage in isn't even an experiment; It is called "treatment" for a neurological difference that is assumed to be a "disease" despite the fact that numerous "theories" (hypotheses) have been proposed that have lead no place except to 1930s-Germany-style state terrorism instead of a real attempt to figure out why a growing proportion of the population aren't able to function in evolving (devolving?) social systems. How about a a part two regarding the evils of the delusional quackery called "psychiatry" where sentience is denied whenever politically convenient (not for the "patient"), concentration camps are called "hospitals," and torture is called "treatment?"

    December 10, 2011 at 16:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Deborah Taylor

    "Stimulating a need." – The description given by the Devil to John Saxon's James Bond-gone- broke character in "Enter the Dragon", while a woman injects experimental substances into women kept in cages. Yes, it is that obvious to the creative people who give us music and movies, TV dramas and books to read that we call "Fiction".
    Every human being that has a heart that will always find this practice disgusting and nothing more advanced sociologically for our species than witch hunts and the Spanish Inquisition. It's right in front of our faces, has been for decades and is 100% identical to every world faith's written "Apocalypse" prophecies. Isaiah, Deuteronomy, Revelation...if I could verbalize what 3 years of study and experience (unemployment allowed me the time, which for many is the reason why they must slow down regardless of the fear and frustration that brings) have done as far as showing me that even if they are not aware that they are doing it, the fact is...every living thing on Earth is connected at a place that is near impossible to see when hate and destructive self interest are so obviously doing the driving. The only solution I could hope to come up with is a very strong and, obviously large group of Americans must be behind eliminating those things we know of but cannot end by ourselves. Armies are effective. I could lead one, therefore I am the "victim" of people who do not possess that strength of mind.

    December 11, 2011 at 16:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Avser Bastian

    NOT LIABILITIES OR DISCRIMINATION, BUT INSTEAD ASSASSINATIONS !!! http://myshortbiography.blogspot.com/ LEARN TRUTH ABOUT EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, UNITED NATIONS, AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL AS WELL AS NEW WORLD ORDER(MULTICULTURALISM = TERRORISM) GOVERNMENTS !!! NOT THERE TO PROTECT YOUR RIGHTS, BUT TO DENY YOUR RIGHT TO EXISTENCE !!! 66 YEARS OF GENOCIDE AGAINST WHITES WORLDWIDE IS NO LONGER ACCEPTABLE !!! STOP THE ANIMAL APARTHEID NOW !!!

    NOT LIABILITIES OR DISCRIMINATION, BUT INSTEAD ASSASSINATIONS !!! http://myshortbiography.blogspot.com/ LEARN TRUTH ABOUT EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, UNITED NATIONS, AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL AS WELL AS NEW WORLD ORDER(MULTICULTURALISM = TERRORISM) GOVERNMENTS !!! NOT THERE TO PROTECT YOUR RIGHTS, BUT TO DENY YOUR RIGHT TO EXISTENCE !!! 66 YEARS OF GENOCIDE AGAINST WHITES WORLDWIDE IS NO LONGER ACCEPTABLE !!! STOP THE ANIMAL APARTHEID NOW !!!

    December 12, 2011 at 13:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Avser Bastian

    WHITES ARE NOT WELCOME IN AMERICA ANY LONGER !!! WE DON'T NEED YOU ANY MORE !!!

    OUT OF AMERICA WITH WHITES NOW !!!


    OR
    http://www.youtube.com/user/BostjanAvsec <== OBAMA'S HEALTH CARE RECORDED LIVE IN 2009 !!! These are hard facts about lunatic Obama/Bush's twilight zone administrations(HORROR) or genocide against whites per ZIONIST Washington DC and in complete agreement with communist Moscow !!!

    EXILING WHITES WITH EXTREME PREJUDICE AND IMPORTING NON WHITES IMMIGRATION REQUIREMENTS COMPLETELY FREE.

    THIS NEWS IS RELATED TO WALL-STREET PROTESTS...NOT ANTI WALL-STREET, BUT ANTI WHITES !!!

    ANTI WALL-STREET PROTESTS ARE ALSO KNOWN UNDER ZIONIST "TRANSFER OF OWNERSHIP" IN AMERICA FROM HANDS OF WHITE AMERICANS TO SO CALLED "MINORITIES"(COMMUNISM). Wall street protesters are Obama's raise of the planet Apes army which spread from London per Zionist Washington DC and communist Moscow where Mr. SOVIET UNION NUMBER TWO or new Stalin is in place = PUTIN

    ANTI WALL-STREET PROTEST MOVEMENT IS LED BY SO CALLED "ANONYMOUS" !!

    Anonymous !!? REALLY !!?

    NOW TELL ME WHO IS ANONYMOUS IN A POLICE STATE WHERE WE ARE SURVEILLANCED 24/7 !!? WHO !!?

    NOBODY !!! ABSOLUTELY NOBODY IS ANONYMOUS IN A POLICE STATE AND NOR ARE THOSE WHO MADE YOU PROTEST FOR THEIR SAKE OR WHAT MULTICULTURALISM(animal Apartheid) IS !!! http://multiculturalismisterrorism.blogspot.com

    NOT LIABILITIES OR DISCRIMINATION, BUT INSTEAD ASSASSINATIONS !!! http://myshortbiography.blogspot.com/ LEARN TRUTH ABOUT EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, UNITED NATIONS, AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL AS WELL AS NEW WORLD ORDER(MULTICULTURALISM = TERRORISM) GOVERNMENTS !!!

    GREEK CRISES !!! We are all Greece...find out who wants to burn not only what is Greece, but is burning our countries for over 66 years now !!! http://burnbabyburnahaha.blogspot.com

    December 12, 2011 at 13:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Yuasa NP7-12

    Thanks for your efforts in writing this post. I found it very informative and interesting. I'll be looking out for more pieces from you.

    March 22, 2012 at 07:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Dawn Canfield

    This experiment would have no different results now in this time and age. Now I know you all are touting yoursleves as independent and critical thinkers but, everyday, you bow and cow tow to the politicians and the people in authority. the men/women of our armed forces everyday that they enter into battle do as authority has told them.. We each and everyday see nurses that carry out doctors orders, we see our geriatric population enter into polypharmacy because the docotr said they needed these medication. We watch certain televison shows, eat food and drinks beverages because we have been told to. Just take time to look around and see how much we do because we are told to.

    February 25, 2013 at 05:49 | Report abuse | Reply

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