Culture of Shock

Fifty years after Stanley Milgram conducted his series of stunning experiments, psychologists are revisiting his findings on the nature of obedience
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Steve McAlister/Getty Images (hand turning switch); Scientific American Mind (bolts)

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.

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