In some ways, though, Milgram’s study is also—as promised—a study of memory, if not the one he pretended it was.
More than five decades after it was first published in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology in 1963, it’s earned a place as one of the most famous experiments of the 20th century. Milgram’s research has spawned countless spinoff studies among psychologists, sociologists, and historians, even as it’s leapt from academia into the realm of pop culture. It’s inspired songs by Peter Gabriel (lyrics: “We do what we’re told/We do what we’re told/Told to do”) and Dar Williams (“When I knew it was wrong, I played it just like a game/I pressed the buzzer”); a number of books whose titles make puns out of the word “shocking”; a controversial French documentary disguised as a game show; episodes of Law and Order and Bones; a made-for-TV movie with William Shatner; a jewelry collection (bizarrely) from the company Enfants Perdus; and most recently, the biopic The Experimenter, starring Peter Sarsgaard as the title character—and this list is by no means exhaustive.
But as with human memory, the study—even published, archived, enshrined in psychology textbooks—is malleable. And in the past few years, a new wave of researchers have dedicated themselves to reshaping it, arguing that Milgram’s lessons on human obedience are, in fact, misremembered—that his work doesn’t prove what he claimed it does.
The problem is, no one can really agree on what it proves instead.
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To mark the 50th anniversary of the experiments’ publication (or, technically, the 51st), the Journal of Social Issues released a themed edition in September 2014 dedicated to all things Milgram. “There is a compelling and timely case for reexamining Milgram’s legacy,” the editors wrote in the introduction, noting that they were in good company: In 1964, the year after the experiments were published, fewer than 10 published studies referenced Milgram’s work; in 2012, that number was more than 60.
It’s a trend that surely would have pleased Milgram, who crafted his work with an audience in mind from the beginning. “Milgram was a fantastic dramaturg. His studies are fantastic little pieces of theater. They’re beautifully scripted,” said Stephen Reicher, a professor of psychology at the University of St. Andrews and a co-editor of the Journal of Social Issues’ special edition. Capitalizing on the fame his 1963 publication earned him, Milgram went on to publish a book on his experiments in 1974 and a documentary, Obedience, with footage from the original experiments.
But for a man determined to leave a lasting legacy, Milgram also made it remarkably easy for people to pick it apart. The Yale University archives contain boxes upon boxes of papers, videos, and audio recordings, an entire career carefully documented for posterity. Though Milgram’s widow Alexandra donated the materials after his death in 1984, they remained largely untouched for years, until Yale’s library staff began to digitize all the materials in the early 2000s. Able to easily access troves of material for the first time, the researchers came flocking.
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