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Stanley Milgram – Legendary Psychologist and Explorer of “What Lies Beneath”

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Reading yesterday’s New York Times story about his memorable experiment, “May I have your seat?”, carried out in the New York City subway system in 1975, I was struck by the simplicity, originality and power of Milgram’s work.

In the subway experiment, he had graduate students go up to people seated in crowded subway cars and ask for their seats.

That’s it.

The results were surprising (68% of those asked gave up their seats), but the effects on the experimenters – his graduate students – were even more so.

Almost universally, they described being discomforted to the point of becoming sick to their stomachs.

Said one of those students, Dr. Harold Takooshian, now a professor at Fordham University, “Milgram’s idea exposed the extremely strong emotions that lie beneath the surface. You have all these strangers together. That study showed how much the rules are saving us from chaos.”

Times reporters Anthony Ramirez and Jennifer Mendoza repeated the experiment in those same subways last month. Their story is fascinating.

Long story short: 13 of 15 people (87%) of people asked to give up their seats did so.

Milgram had become famous in the early 1960s for a series of experiments at Yale University in which test subjects were asked to administer what they thought were powerful electric shocks to fellow students.

A stunning number did, a revelation in the field of studies of the power of authority.

Stanley Milgram died in 1984 at the age of 51.

What studies might he have created over the past 20 years, had he lived instead of dying at the height of his powers?

This afternoon I decided to have a look, at long last, into this man’s life.

Turns out that the first and only biography of Milgram,

entitled “The Man Who Shocked The World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram,” was just published this year.

The author, Dr. Thomas Blass, is a psychology professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and considered the authority on the life and work of Milgram.

He’s created an excellent website, which provides much provocative and interesting information about the legendary Milgram.

Among other things, I learned that Milgram made six films about his work, all available for purchase.

The first of them was the black-and-white documentary “Obedience,” shot at Yale University in May, 1962, right after he completed his groundbreaking, controversial series of experiments.

He was only 29 years old at the time.

Milgram would go on to produce many other creative, provocative experiments, including the “Small-World Method” (the source of “Six Degrees of Separation), the “Lost-Letter Technique,” and an experiment testing the effects of televised antisocial behavior.

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  • Eric Olsen

    fascinating post, Joe, I knew of the shock experiments but had forgotten who conducted them and had no idea he had done so much other important work. Thanks!