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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
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
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.
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.