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August 15: The Shocking Stanley Milgram

Lawrence Bush
August 14, 2016

stanley_milgramStanley Milgram, the social psychologist who responded to the Eichmann trial and the Holocaust by designing an experiment about human obedience to authority, was born in the Bronx on this date in 1933. Milgram received his Ph.D. in social psychology from Harvard University before teaching at Yale, Harvard, and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His “small world” experiments at Harvard in the late 1960s, measuring the social networks of Americans, suggested the “six degrees of separation” concept to public discourse. He was best known, however, for his obedience experiments at Yale, in which (according to American Psychologist), “a subject walks into a laboratory believing that s/he is about to take part in a study of memory and learning. After being assigned the role of a teacher, the subject is asked to teach word associations to a fellow subject (who in reality is a collaborator of the experimenter). The teaching method . . . is unconventional — administering increasingly higher electric shocks to the learner. Once the presumed shock level reaches a certain point, the subject is thrown into a conflict. On the one hand, the strapped learner demands to be set free, he appears to suffer pain, and going all the way may pose a risk to his health. On the other hand, the experimenter, if asked, insists that the experiment is not as unhealthy as it appears to be, and that the teacher must go on. In sharp contrast to the expectations of professionals and laymen alike, some 65 percent of all subjects continue to administer shocks up to the very highest levels.” To read about a Jewish Currents editorial board member who was a subject in the Milgram experiment, click here. Milgram’s family included Holocaust survivors who lived with him for a time after the war. “I should have been born into the German-speaking Jewish community of Prague in 1922 and died in a gas chamber some twenty years later,” he wrote in personal correspondence. “How I came to be born in the Bronx Hospital, I’ll never quite understand.”

“The essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and he therefore no longer sees himself as responsible for his actions. Once this critical shift of viewpoint has occurred in the person, all of the essential features of obedience follow.” --Stanley Milgram

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.