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Unformatted text preview: The Power of the Situation The Impact of Milgrams Obedience Studies on Personality and Social Psychology Ludy T. Benjamin Jr. Texas A&amp;M University Jeffry A. Simpson University of Minnesota Few psychological studies, if any, can claim a legacy as imposing as the obedience studies of Stanley Milgram. Their impact was of notable consequence in the separate spheres of research ethics, research design, and theory in psychology, and they changed the ways that psychologists conceptualize and conduct their research. The authors discuss the legacy of these studies, especially as they ef- fected dramatic changes in the fields of personality and social psychology. The article concludes with a discussion of what psychological science has lost in the aftermath of Milgramhigh impact studiesand the salience that such research has in illuminating the most significant problems of our society, studies that could produce great human benefits. Keywords: Stanley Milgram, obedience, ethics, social and personality psychology, high-impact research When you think of the long and gloomy history of man, you will find more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebel- lion. (Snow, 1961, p. 24) I n August of 1961, men from all walks of life in the New Haven, Connecticut, community began showing up, one by one, at Linsly-Chittenden Hall on the Yale University campus. They had come in response to a news- paper ad that offered them $4.50 for their participation in what was advertised as a study of human learning and memory. They did not know it at the time, nor did the experimenter, Stanley Milgram, but they were about to make history in the most famous, or infamous, study in the annals of scientific psychology. It was a study the results of which would shock the world and the studys designer and would dramatically alter the course of psychology both conceptually and methodologically. The research would prove unsettling on several levels, but arguably its most disturbing feature was that it revealed truths about human nature that most people did not want to acknowledgethat the capacity for evil resided in everyone and awaited only the right circumstances to make its appearance. The study would demonstrate with signal finality the horror mani- fested when unquestioning obedience to authority pre- vailed. It provided scientific evidence of the inherent dan- gers in obedience long acknowledged by philosophers and poets such as Percy Bysshe Shelley (1829), who wrote that obedience was the bane of all genius, virtue, freedom, [and] truth, [and that it] makes slaves of men (p. 35). A History of the Construct of Obedience in Psychology The construct of obedience has a long history in psychology, and much of the early literature was about the positive benefits of obedience. It began, perhaps, in the writings of French psychologist Theodule Ribot (1891), who discussed obedience in the context of will, noting that...
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