- Fifty years ago Stanley Milgram conducted groundbreaking experiments, discovering that ordinary people were willing to inflict lethal shocks on a stranger when asked to do so by an experimenter.
- Initially seen as evidence of humans’ blind obedience to authority, more recent analyses cast doubt on that interpretation.
- Innovative experimental approaches are allowing psychologists to address ethical concerns about Milgram’s original experiments and tackle pressing questions about conformity and power.
In 1961 Stanley Milgram embarked on a research program that would change psychology forever. Fueled by a desire to understand how ordinary Germans had managed to participate in the horrors of the Holocaust, Milgram decided to investigate when and why people obey authority. To do so, he developed an ingenious experimental paradigm that revealed the surprising degree to which ordinary individuals are willing to inflict pain on others.
Half a century later Milgram’s obedience studies still resonate. They showed that it does not take a disturbed personality to harm others. Healthy, well-adjusted people are willing to administer lethal electric shocks to another person when told to do so by an authority figure. Milgram’s findings convulsed the world of psychology and horrified the world at large. His work also left pressing questions about the nature of conformity unanswered. Ethical concerns have prompted psychologists to spend decades struggling to design equally powerful experiments without inflicting distress on the participants.
This article was originally published with the title Culture of Shock.