"In the beginning, Stanley Milgram was worried about the Nazi problem. He doesn't worry much about the Nazis anymore. He worries about you and me, and, perhaps, himself a little bit too" (Meyer 96).

Basis for Milgram's Obedience Experiment

When Milgram began his career at Yale University in 1960, he planned to verify, scientifically, that Germans are different. This "Germans are different" hypothesis has been used by historians, such as William L. Shirer, to explain the systematic destruction of the Jews by the Third Reich during the Holocaust. Conceivably, Adolf Hitler could decide to annihilate the Jews, and create a master plan to achieve his goal. Yet to implement this plan on the scale that Hitler did required the participation of thousands of other people to help do the work. The Shirer Hypothesis, which Milgram intended to test, asserts that Germans have a basic character flaw that explains their willingness to destroy the Jewish population: this flaw is the readiness to obey authority without question, no matter what inhumane acts the authority commands (Meyer 96).

Above: German troops, under Hilter's spell, parade through Warsaw, September, 1939, in their quest to obey their leader and annihilate the Jews (image and caption from http://www.nara.gov/nara/nn/nns/ww2photo.html).

Particularly appealing about this theory is that it makes those of us who are not German feel better about ourselves. We are not Hitler; thus, we would never assist him in annihilating millions of people. Yet now, because of Stanley Milgram, we are compelled to wonder. Milgram devised a laboratory experiment that provided a systematic way to measure obedience. He intended to run his experiment in New Haven, Connecticut, with American participants, and then, he planned to bring his work to Germany, to test his hypothesis with Germans. Scientific curiosity motivated Milgram, but in addition, there existed moral factors in his decision to pursue this line of research, resulting from his own Jewish background. If Milgram could demonstrate that Germans are more obedient than Americans, he could then vary the conditions of the experiment in an attempt to uncover exactly what it is that makes some people more obedient than others. This understanding could perhaps make the world just a little better (Meyer 96-97).

Milgram, however, never brought his experiment to Germany; the experiment never went any farther than Bridgeport, Connecticut. His first results, also the most disturbing and unanticipated findings, were that we, Americans, are an obedient people: "not blindly obedient, and not blissfully obedient, just obedient. 'I found so much obedience, says Milgram softly, a little sadly, 'I hardly saw the need for taking the experiment to Germany' "(Milgram, as quoted in Meyer 97).

 

Stanley Milgram Homepage
About the obedience experiment
Follow-up Studies
Biography of Stanley Milgram: his life and work
The Results
Interpretations of the Results
Basis for the experiment

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