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 (522 Responses)
  1. Sprinter Resistor Repair


    May 12, 2021 at 02:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. class c renovation

    It’s hard to find well-informed people on this topic, however, you seem like you know what you’re talking about! Thanks


    May 12, 2021 at 06:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. awnings orange county


    May 12, 2021 at 06:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. indoor rv storage orange county ca

    You are so cool! I do not think I've truly read through a single thing like this before. So nice to find somebody with a few genuine thoughts on this topic. Seriously.. many thanks for starting this up. This site is one thing that is needed on the internet, someone with some originality!


    May 12, 2021 at 08:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. kenworth shop near me


    May 12, 2021 at 08:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. camper trailer repair near me


    May 12, 2021 at 11:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. RV Bay Doors California

    I'm pretty pleased to discover this site. I wanted to thank you for your time for this fantastic read!! I definitely appreciated every little bit of it and i also have you book-marked to look at new things in your website.


    May 12, 2021 at 18:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. toy hauler furniture


    May 12, 2021 at 19:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. collision experts fargo


    May 12, 2021 at 20:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. window blinds repair san diego

    I enjoy looking through an article that will make people think. Also, many thanks for allowing me to comment!


    May 13, 2021 at 00:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Handicapped Van Repair

    You ought to take part in a contest for one of the finest sites online. I am going to recommend this site!


    May 13, 2021 at 05:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. RV Interior Remodeling Near Me


    May 13, 2021 at 10:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. RV AC Near Me


    May 13, 2021 at 11:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Sprinter Ecu Repair

    Next time I read a blog, I hope that it won't disappoint me as much as this one. After all, I know it was my choice to read, however I truly thought you'd have something useful to say. All I hear is a bunch of complaining about something you could fix if you weren't too busy looking for attention.


    May 13, 2021 at 13:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Dodge Sprinter Repair Near Me

    May I simply say what a relief to find an individual who genuinely knows what they are discussing online. You certainly know how to bring an issue to light and make it important. More and more people should read this and understand this side of the story. It's surprising you're not more popular because you certainly possess the gift.


    May 13, 2021 at 17:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. riverside collision repair provo


    May 14, 2021 at 00:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. tow truck repair

    You made some decent points there. I looked on the web to learn more about the issue and found most people will go along with your views on this website.


    May 14, 2021 at 02:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Maserati Mike


    May 14, 2021 at 18:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. homes for sale near by


    May 14, 2021 at 19:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. homes for sale dalton gardens id


    May 14, 2021 at 21:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Penny Ridderhoff



    May 14, 2021 at 22:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Maserati Videos


    May 15, 2021 at 02:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Arizona's Vision

    I’m amazed, I have to admit. Rarely do I encounter a blog that’s both equally educative and engaging, and let me tell you, you've hit the nail on the head. The problem is something which not enough folks are speaking intelligently about. I am very happy that I came across this during my hunt for something concerning this.


    May 15, 2021 at 02:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. 2017 Maserati For Sale


    May 15, 2021 at 02:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. couch repair near me


    May 15, 2021 at 06:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Maserati Gt For Sale

    An outstanding share! I've just forwarded this onto a colleague who was conducting a little homework on this. And he actually ordered me breakfast simply because I stumbled upon it for him... lol. So let me reword this.... Thanks for the meal!! But yeah, thanks for spending the time to talk about this matter here on your blog.


    May 15, 2021 at 11:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Eye Dr Near Me


    May 15, 2021 at 13:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Phoenix Eye Care

    Good write-up. I definitely love this site. Keep writing!


    May 15, 2021 at 14:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. Maserati Gran Cabrio Prices


    May 15, 2021 at 15:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. nearest house for sale


    May 15, 2021 at 15:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Social Media Marketing Companies Cypress

    Way cool! Some very valid points! I appreciate you writing this article and also the rest of the site is very good.


    May 15, 2021 at 21:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Digital Marketing Management


    May 15, 2021 at 21:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. Content Marketing Programs

    There is definately a lot to find out about this subject. I love all of the points you made.


    May 15, 2021 at 22:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. Google Marketing Services


    May 15, 2021 at 23:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. Digital Marketing Center


    May 16, 2021 at 02:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. travel trailer remodeling companies

    An impressive share! I've just forwarded this onto a friend who has been conducting a little homework on this. And he actually bought me dinner simply because I stumbled upon it for him... lol. So allow me to reword this.... Thank YOU for the meal!! But yeah, thanx for spending time to discuss this matter here on your internet site.


    May 16, 2021 at 10:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. what kind of paint to use on a horse trailer

    I really love your blog.. Very nice colors & theme. Did you build this amazing site yourself? Please reply back as I’m trying to create my own personal blog and would like to find out where you got this from or what the theme is named. Cheers!

    http://www.senwes.co.za/LinkTrack.aspx?i=Sat24LinkAF&url=https://kafuco.ac.ke/scit/index.php/item/4-oxford-s-part-in-a-new -multiple-sclerosis-drug-adipisicing-elit-sed-do-eiusmod-tempor?start=311310

    May 16, 2021 at 12:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. Sprinter Repair Codes


    May 16, 2021 at 16:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. Sprinter Side Door Repair


    May 16, 2021 at 16:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. Maserati Merak


    May 16, 2021 at 17:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. Maserati Wallpapers


    May 16, 2021 at 18:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. Sprinter Diesel Repair


    May 16, 2021 at 20:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. Maserati Mexico


    May 16, 2021 at 22:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. Diesel Sprinter Repair Near Me

    Great site you have here.. It’s difficult to find high-quality writing like yours these days. I truly appreciate people like you! Take care!!


    May 16, 2021 at 22:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. 32955 Sprinter Repair

    I must thank you for the efforts you've put in penning this blog. I am hoping to check out the same high-grade content from you in the future as well. In fact, your creative writing abilities has motivated me to get my own site now 😉


    May 17, 2021 at 02:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. Sprinter Repair Codes


    May 17, 2021 at 02:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. Repair 2005 Sprinter Ecm


    May 17, 2021 at 03:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. Handicapped Van Repair


    May 17, 2021 at 03:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. Dodge Sprinter Auto Repair


    May 17, 2021 at 04:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. Sprinter Seat Fabric Repair


    May 17, 2021 at 05:09 | Report abuse | Reply
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

Post a comment


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.

About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.