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.

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