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The Man Who Shocked the WorldReview - The Man Who Shocked the World
The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram
by Thomas Blass
Basic Books, 2005
Review by Mark Welch, Ph.D.
Jul 20th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 29)

Stanley Milgram is without doubt one of the most famous of all psychology researchers. However, as Thomas Blass points out in this excellent, entertaining and informative biography, he was also one of the most imaginative, curious, inventive, multi-talented and yet somehow incomplete figures in the history of psychology. While every undergraduate instantly recognizes his name, and it might be said that he is one of the few psychologists recognized outside the discipline, his legacy is peculiarly mixed. On the one hand, he devised some of the most novel and provocative experiments; on the other, his theoretical contributions can seem slight.

Here we have the essential conundrum at the heat of Milgram. He was insatiably curious and had an extraordinary knack of designing research that could, in some way, measure the sort of imponderable that should, but rarely does, occur to almost anyone. But he was always more interested in the question, in the inquiry than in the theory. Thus, he could ask himself after an innocuous conversation with his mother-in-law about her train journey, what would happen if you actually asked someone on a crowded train for their seat, and then go ahead and do exactly that, but only really describe rather than explain what happens. It is curious that of all his famous experiments, this is the one, where students asked strangers to give up their seat without any explanation, just saying, "Could I have your seat, please?" that caused his confederates most distress. The engaging aspect of both the book and Milgram's ideas is that they make you ask, "What would I do?" They have an immediate and profound effect on the reader and an almost theatrical identification with the protagonist.

Milgram will always be most associated with the obedience experiments. Those set-ups in which the subject was deceived into believing that he was giving electric shocks to a man who was answering questions incorrectly. The obedience was to a man in a gray lab coat, who would instruct the continuation of the experiment. What we all now know, and what remains so relevant today, is that an unthought of number of subjects gave shocks even when there were clear signals that it was dangerous to do so. What we all have had to think of ever since is, "How far would I go in simply obeying orders?"

Milgram, it seems was quite aware of the enormous social impact that this particular experiment might have. It was, after all, conducted in the early 1960s, with the Nazi experience still fresh in mind and even with the Adolf Eichmann trial in progress. It may be difficult now to recapture the mood of the time, but when the faceless bureaucrat was on trial, when a man whose pride it was to have a perfectly ordered railway timetable, sat impassively as millions of deaths were relayed and could only say, "I was obeying orders", the intensity of the issue was almost palpable. The banality of evil, what we all might be capable of, the powers of denial have all been revisited again and again, and Milgram is always central to this.

It is a curious aspect of his career that he had a somewhat ambivalent attitude to his great early success. The obedience experiments were among the first of his post-doctoral activities and always had a great debt to the work of Asch who was both a mentor and a basis for his doctoral studies. The book of the experiment that gained him great fame, and considerable influence and wealth, didn't appear for ten years. The ethics of subjecting people to that amount of moral distress have always been questioned, a number of influential journals including Les Temps Modernes edited by Jean-Paul Sartre refused to publish any articles because they thought the research abhorrent. His subsequent career led away from obedience into other less recognized areas. And yet, although he was enormously protective of the work, especially defending its ethics which he believed were at a higher standard than the norm because of the introduction of debriefing, he was also somewhat tried by being known for work that increasingly became distant to him.

In fact, less well known achievements of Milgram include the notion of the 'six degrees of separation' (although six was only the average, not any rule) and his 'lost letter technique'. In the former he looked at how two quite socially and geographically distant people might be able to connect through a link of personal acquaintances. Thus, a farmer in Idaho might connect with a Boston banker, or in a replication study to a nomad in Mongolia. Milgram, once again, demonstrated an ability to find resonance in a public understanding of the world. The idea, at once poetic and simple, seemed to capture an image of the interconnectedness of the modern world.

The 'lost letter technique' again found a ready recognition with a wide audience because everyone was able to ask, "What would I do if found a stamped envelope addressed to an organization I despise. Would I pick it up and post it (a sort of moral reciprocity), would I tear it up, would I ignore it altogether?" Milgram's ability to distil profound issues into simple questions is surely part of his legacy.

Throughout the book Blass shows not only a great fondness for Milgram, with all his prickliness, impish humor, and imagination that stretched psychology into trans-disciplinary regions through his use of film and his questioning of what is it like to live in and understand modern urban life and all the complex of social relations (how do we do it?), but also a strong grasp of Milgram's strengths and weaknesses. Blass considers carefully the impact of a tumbling fertile imagination, and weighs up the lack of theoretical punch behind it. However, the book is to be recommended to professional and general reader alike. It shows not only the work of an undeniably influential investigator, but also the legacy of a man who both recognized and shaped the zeitgeist of his age.

 

 

2005 Mark Welch

 

Mark Welch, Ph.D. Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Nursing at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta and Co-Director of the PAHO/WHO Collaborating Centre for Nursing & Mental Health.


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