A sparky study that tests your blind obedience

The Man who Shocked the World

October 1, 2004

This is not just a book about a well-known social psychologist, Stanley Milgram, and his obedience/conformity studies, but an in-depth psychological biography highlighting the link between a scientist's childhood and psychological background and his life's scientific work.

Milgram was born in the Bronx in New York, just before the Second World War, to Hungarian and Romanian Jewish parents. Given his Eastern European background, he was made acutely aware at an early age of the rise of Nazism in Germany, and what this might mean for Jews in Europe.

This led him to become interested in political science, but he soon became disillusioned with it for failing to provide adequate explanations for human behaviour, particularly the rise of Nazism and the ability of so many Germans blindly to ignore Hitler's racist policies. How could so many people in a civilised and educated society, such as the Germany of that time, conform to attitudes, values and behaviour that must have been an anathema to them during previous periods?

In an effort to understand this dynamic, Milgram was influenced by Solomon Asch, who visited Harvard University's department of social relations, where Milgram was doing his graduate work. Asch was interested in exploring individual conformity in a group situation. Asch's early conformity studies used experimenter "confederates" in a group to put pressure on subjects'

judgements. Subjects were confronted with either trusting their own judgements or going along with the bogus but unanimous judgements of the rest of the group.

These studies were the forerunner of Milgram's own work in trying to understand how people could not only conform but become obedient to authority or authority-like figures, as in Nazi Germany. To attempt to understand this process, he designed his infamous electric shock, or "obedience studies".

In the classic study, subjects believe they are performing an experiment in human learning. The subject operates a control panel, consisting of a series of switches set in a line, and administers a graded series of electric shocks to a victim, a confederate of the experimenter, believing that the victim is suffering. As the experiment proceeds, the subject is told to deliver increasingly more potent shocks and at a certain point refuses to carry on with the experiment.

Milgram found that a number of subjects obeyed the commands of their experimenter even though they felt that they might be giving very painful electric shocks to another person. It was these experiments and their refinements over many years that led to our better understanding of why obedience to authority occurs. He felt that it was partly a personality predisposition. He also felt that our moral beliefs and behaviour were capable of being influenced, but only up to a critical moral point.

These studies were his biggest contribution to the field of human behaviour, but Milgram was also involved in research on TV violence, information overload and the "six degrees of separation" theory (that all of us on the planet are separated from one another by six people).

Milgram's work opened many psychological doors that were previously bolted.

This is a truly masterful account by Thomas Blass of the man, his science, his motivations and how we can better understand the link between the scientist as a person and his or her work. It is well-written, with mountains of information, insights, discoveries and reflections, and is a must-read for any behavioural scientist.

Cary L. Cooper is professor of organisational psychology and health, Lancaster University.

The Man who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram

Author - Thomas Blass
Publisher - Basic Books
Pages - 360
Price - £19.99
ISBN - 0 7382 0399 8

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