Reviews Book

The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram

BMJ 2005; 331 doi: (Published 04 August 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;331:356
  1. Raj Persaud, Gresham professor for public understanding of psychiatry and consultant psychiatrist
  1. Maudsley Hospital, London

    The late Stanley Milgram fairly lays claim to be one of the greatest behavioural scientists of the 20th century. He derives his renown from of a series of experiments on obedience to authority, which he conducted at Yale University in 1961-2. Milgram found, surprisingly, that 65% of his subjects, ordinary residents of New Haven, were willing to give apparently harmful electric shocks—up to 450 volts—to a pitifully protesting victim, simply because a scientific, lab coated authority commanded them to, and despite the fact that the victim did nothing to deserve such punishment. The victim was, in reality, a good actor who did not actually receive shocks, a fact that was revealed to the subjects at the end of the experiment.

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    Thomas Blass

    Basic Books, £15.50/$26/$C40, pp 360 ISBN 0 7382 0399 8 Due for publication in paperback next month

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    Milgram's interest in the study of obedience partly emerged out of a deep concern with the suffering of fellow Jews at the hands of the Nazis and an attempt to fathom how the Holocaust could have happened. His researches, like Freud's, led to profound revisions in some of the fundamental assumptions about human nature.

    Milgram's experiments suggested that it was not necessary to invoke “evil” as a concept to explain why so many ordinary people do terrible things. Instead his work, and that of other social psychologists, suggested that much of what we do, we do automatically. Evil often occurs simply because we do not question our acts enough; instead our rationale arises from our trust in authority figures who are in “charge.”

    The subjects in Milgram's original series of tests believed that they were part of an experiment dealing with the relation between punishment and learning. An experimenter—who used no coercive powers beyond a stern aura of mechanical and vacant eyed efficiency—instructed participants to shock a learner by pressing a lever on a machine each time the learner made a mistake on a word matching task. Each subsequent error led to an increase in the intensity of the shock in 15 volt increments, from 15 to 450 volts.

    Actually the shock box was a well crafted prop and the learner an actor who did not receive shocks. Most of the subjects continued to obey to the end—believing that they were delivering life threatening 450 volt shocks—simply because the experimenter commanded them to. Although subjects were told about the deception afterward, the experience was a real and powerful one for them during the laboratory hour itself.

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    Milgram: groundshaking experiments

    These groundbreaking and controversial experiments had—and continue to have—longlasting significance. The media have been obsessed with them since, repeatedly “re-discovering” them and re-reporting them as if they were amazing news.

    Milgram's study demonstrated with brutal clarity that ordinary individuals could be induced to act destructively, even in the absence of physical coercion, and humans need not be innately evil or aberrant to act in ways that are reprehensible and inhumane. While we would like to believe that when confronted with a moral dilemma we will act as our conscience dictates, Milgram's obedience experiments teach us that, in a concrete situation with powerful social constraints, our moral sense can all too easily be overwhelmed.

    The research was also conducted with amazing verve and subtlety—for example, Milgram ensured that the “experimenter” wear a grey lab coat rather than a white one, precisely because he did not want subjects to think that the “experimenter” was a medical doctor and thereby limit the implications of his findings to the power of physician authority.

    The nuance of Milgram's conclusions has often been obscured by the superficial reporting of his work, which Blass, a US psychology professor, goes to some lengths in this important book to rectify. Milgram believed the true explanation of evil such as the Holocaust was linked to his experiments by their demonstration of “a propensity for people to accept definitions of action provided by legitimate authority. That is, although the subject performs the action, he allows authority to define its meaning.”

    We did not need Milgram to tell us that we have a tendency to obey orders. But what we did not know before Milgram's experiments was just how powerful this tendency is. And having been enlightened about our extreme readiness to obey authorities, we can try to take steps to guard against unwelcome or reprehensible commands.

    Many professions have taken heed of Milgram's work. The US army, for example, now incorporates his findings into its education of officers in order to illuminate the issue of following unethical orders. However, it is not clear that medicine has truly understood the implications of Milgram's work. How often are doctors or medical students in the position of having to obey “orders” or implicit expectations in hospitals or clinics, when they are uneasy about the ethics of doing so?

    What is perhaps most intriguing about this book is not so much the dramatic implications of Milgram's work, but instead the insight that Blass gives us into the kind of unconventional mind required to devise groundshaking experiments that will continue to echo through the corridors of history long after much more mundane work currently dominating learned journals is forgotten.


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