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The Man Who Shocked The World: The Life And Legacy Of Stanley Milgram

The Man Who Shocked The World: The Life And Legacy Of Stanley Milgram

by Thomas Blass

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The creator of the famous "Obedience Experiments," carried out at Yale in the 1960s, and originator of the "six degrees of separation" concept, Stanley Milgram was one of the most innovative scientists of our time. In this sparkling biography-the first in-depth portrait of Milgram-Thomas Blass captures the colorful personality and pioneering work of a social


The creator of the famous "Obedience Experiments," carried out at Yale in the 1960s, and originator of the "six degrees of separation" concept, Stanley Milgram was one of the most innovative scientists of our time. In this sparkling biography-the first in-depth portrait of Milgram-Thomas Blass captures the colorful personality and pioneering work of a social psychologist who profoundly altered the way we think about human nature.Born in the Bronx in 1933, Stanley Milgram was the son of Eastern European Jews, and his powerful Obedience Experiments had obvious intellectual roots in the Holocaust. The experiments, which confirmed that "normal" people would readily inflict pain on innocent victims at the behest of an authority figure, generated a firestorm of public interest and outrage-proving, as they did, that moral beliefs were far more malleable than previously thought. But Milgram also explored other aspects of social psychology, from information overload to television violence to the notion that we live in a small world. Although he died suddenly at the height of his career, his work continues to shape the way we live and think today. Blass offers a brilliant portrait of an eccentric visionary scientist who revealed the hidden workings of our very social world.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Social psychologist Stanley Milgram achieved a precocious fame in the early 1960s with his controversial "obedience experiments": subjects posing as "teachers" willingly gave what they believed were powerful electric shocks to innocent "learners" simply because a man in a lab coat told them to. For better and worse, as Blass shows in this unsatisfyingly superficial portrait, the experiments overshadowed the rest of Milgram's career; his pioneering research on the "six degrees of separation" in social networks and studies in urban psychology never achieved the same clat. As Blass shows, the simultaneous revulsion and fascination the obedience research elicited probably cost Milgram tenure at Harvard a loss that this superachiever may never have gotten over and other professional honors. So the downward arc of Milgram's life (ending with his premature death at 51 in 1984) leaves Blass with a tough narrative task, which he doesn't negotiate well. Blass, a social psychologist and the leading authority on Milgram, does a workmanlike job of describing Milgram's research and its significance, but he neglects the man's interior life almost entirely. Milgram's family life is depicted episodically, his relations with wife and children unexplored, and Blass mentions Milgram's use of cocaine and other drugs almost as an aside before returning hurriedly to more pleasant matters. Milgram's genius and wit are apparent, but the dark side of a man described by his own brother as arrogant and by Blass himself as dictatorial and mercurial is never explored. Readers are left wondering who this man really was who devised the most fascinating, disturbing and devilish social psychology experiment in history. (Apr.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Social psychologist Blass (Univ. of Maryland, Baltimore) presents this first biography of his prominent forbear, Stanley Milgram (1933-84), whose ingenious, controversial research demonstrated that people can abandon their own moral judgment when carrying out the orders of an authority figure. Vividly portrayed here, these obedience studies address the Holocaust, war crimes, and the "sheep" mentality, which are still timely and relevant issues. Though his obedience research made him famous, Milgram's career path was bumpy, taking him from Yale to Harvard to CUNY, where he taught from 1967 until his fatal heart attack at 51. Blass acknowledges Milgram's weakness as a theoretician but argues persuasively that he was a genius. He originated the "six degrees of separation" idea, conducted other imaginative research, and excelled as a teacher, writer, and filmmaker. Through contacts with Milgram's colleagues, students, friends, and family, Blass portrays a warm family man, brimming with curiosity and creativity, who was also quirky and sometimes harsh with his students. Among the best biographies of psychologists, this book illuminates research with enough depth and clarity to suit historians, social scientists, and general readers. Highly recommended for both public and academic libraries. E. James Lieberman, George Washington Univ. Sch. of Medicine, Washington, DC Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

Basic Books
Publication date:
Art of Mentoring Series
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
6.42(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.25(d)

Read an Excerpt


The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram


Copyright © 2004 Thomas Blass, Ph.D.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-7382-0399-8

Chapter One


Stanley Milgram was born in the Bronx on August 15, 1933, to Samuel and Adele Milgram, both Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. They met in the United States and were married in February 1931. Like so many thousands of Jews before and after them, their families had undoubtedly been drawn to America by its idealized reputation as the Goldene Medina-the land of golden opportunity. Samuel, an expert baker and cake decorator, emigrated from Hungary in 1921 after World War I and returned briefly to Europe a few years later to apprentice in Germany. Stanley recalled that his father seemed "especially sturdy, his heavy-boned arms strengthened by years of kneading dough in the shops, his face reflecting both Jewish warmth and, in his high chiseled cheekbones, traces of his Magyar birthland." He was 5'8", and Stanley thought he looked a bit like Marshall Tito of Yugoslavia. Adele was born in Romania in 1908 and came to the United States at age five with her mother. She was petite, short, and gentle. She radiated cheerfulness, and it was easy to make her laugh. Adele was everyone's favorite aunt, the family sage to whom all turned for advice and for arbitration in family disputes.

Samuel and Adele moved frequently. During the Depression, landlords engaged in a competition to draw and retain tenants. They offered various "concessions" or inducements, such as free gas and electricity or a month's rent. Concessions could save tenants a lot of money, and when their lease was up, they could often find a better offer from another landlord. The Milgrams, like so many others, found themselves packing up their belongings every few years, sometimes to move just a block or two away.

When Stanley was born, the family was living in a small apartment building at 1020 Boynton Avenue, in a section of the South Bronx, bounded on the west by the Bronx River, where it starts its meandering curve eastward, and on the south by Bruckner Boulevard. As late as 1925, the area still contained some farmland. This section of the Bronx did not have an agreed-upon name, but it did possess a cohesive neighborhood feeling, and the streets pulsated with the energy and drive of people who were trying to improve their situation.

Years later, Stanley would describe it this way:

The neighborhood was always abuzz with people: plump, animated women, in patterned cotton dresses and aprons, sunning themselves on bridge chairs in front of the apartment houses, knitting in splendid self-containment or exchanging gossip while distractedly rocking their baby carriages. There were plenty of children running around, and always a mother shouting through an open window for "Sey ... mour" or "Ir ... ving" in that long drawn out sing-song that was their maternal call. It was a mixed neighborhood of immigrants-but not greenhorns-who came mostly from Jewish Eastern Europe. Many of them worked in small shops or owned them. A few clerks, secretaries, and school teachers lived here too, elevating the prestige of the neighborhood.... These bakers, printers, clerks, and housewives were fueled by aspirations, if not for themselves then for their progeny, who played stick ball in the streets, and thought of the local candy store as the outer limit of their world.

Stanley was Sam and Adele's second child. His sister Marjorie was born a year and a half earlier. Stanley was named after a deceased grandfather named Simcha-Hebrew for joy, a feeling apparently lost on his sister, who, sensing that she would now have to vie with the new baby for her parents' attention, demanded: "Throw him into the incinerator." She was constantly tossing things into Stanley's crib, forcing Adele to spread a screen over it to protect him. And Marjorie was constantly being reprimanded for hitting the baby.

A younger brother, Joel, was born five years later. Stanley's first recollection of the imminent arrival of his new brother was sitting with his sister on the marble steps in the vestibule of their apartment house on Boynton Avenue, speculating about the new baby: "We knew that Mom would be going to the hospital to get the baby. Margie insisted that it be a baby girl; I wanted a baby brother. We argued, but we knew the matter was not up to us; it would depend on whatever the hospital decided to give out."

When Joel was old enough, he became a willing accomplice in his brother's pranks, which continued well into their teens. This shared mischief not only enlivened those years, but helped cement the bonds of brotherhood, which held fast for life, no matter how far apart they lived.

In one such incident, Stanley and his buddies decided to try to convince another friend, named Wex (short for Wexelbaum), that he had telepathic powers. To prove it, Stanley brought Wex to his own room in the apartment and told him that he was thinking of a number, which he had written on a slip of paper and put in a lockbox under his bed. Wex should read his mind and say what the number was. After Wex said a number, Joel, hiding under the bed, quickly wrote the number on a piece of paper and slipped it into the lockbox.

In another incident, Stanley and Joel were having a friendly tussle on the living room floor. Among the room's furnishings was a round, ornate French provincial coffee table with four curving, baroque legs. It was recessed in the middle and covered by a clear glass disc, about 30 inches across. They bumped the coffee table, breaking the glass top. To hide their misdeed from their parents, the brothers spread a piece of cellophane tightly across the top. The substitution went undetected for a few weeks, until one day a guest placed a cup and saucer on the table that quickly sank toward the floor.

For the children of the Neighborhood With No Name, the center of their lives was the local elementary school, PS 77, on Ward Avenue. Its main entrance was flanked on both sides by two white columns, their stateliness serving to forewarn those about to enter the building of the supreme importance of what went on inside. The building's symbolic import was abetted by a dress code: Boys had to wear white shirts and ties. Through the third grade, it was a red tie; after third grade, it was a blue tie. There was a similar school "uniform" requirement for girls, who had to wear some type of white blouse and a red-then blue-sash, bow, or ribbon around the neck. The uniforms served as a simple but effective social and economic leveler. The school's principal believed that wearing them would make all children feel equal. Adele loved the dress code, because it took the daily decision about what the children should wear and the hassles associated with it out of her hands. A pretty flower garden separated the school building and the sidewalk. Adele once told little Stanley that babies came from tulips. After that, he would periodically inspect the tulips in the school's garden, waiting for tiny life forms to emerge.

It was at PS 77 that Stanley's superior intelligence became visible to those outside his immediate family. When Stanley was in kindergarten, he would often stand next to his mother at night as she helped his sister with her homework. One evening, the discussion focused on Abraham Lincoln. The following day, when Stanley's kindergarten teacher asked her class to tell what they knew about the great president, little Stanley raised his hand and proceeded to repeat what he had overheard from his mother the night before. His teacher was so impressed that she had the principal take him around from class to class to recite his speech about President Lincoln.

Indeed, Stanley was remembered by his elementary school teachers as an outstanding student. Although as an adult Joel would be proud of his brother's achievements, during their childhood years Stanley's school performance made Joel, a disinterested student who got marginal grades, look even worse. Joel's third-grade teacher, Mrs. Stiller, had been Stanley's third-grade teacher five years earlier. Once, expressing her disappointment while returning a paper to Joel with a low grade, she made it a point to tell him how much better his brother had done in her class.

Most of the boys in the neighborhood spent much of their free time playing ball in the schoolyard and in the streets. Stanley was not very adept at sports, so he did not participate much in those activities. Instead, he developed an early interest in science. An older cousin gave him a chemistry set, and he found himself tinkering with it in his spare time. Occasionally he got some of his buddies to participate in his experiments, one of which involved lowering a large flask containing sodium into the Bronx River. When the "sodium bomb" exploded, fire engines and worried mothers rushed to the site. He was always doing experiments. "It was as natural as breathing," he once told an interviewer, "and I tried to understand how everything worked."

Among Stanley's childhood experiences, two are especially noteworthy, because they turned out to be harbingers of concerns that would later dominate his professional life. The first involved the power of groups. In Stanley's own words:

On [a] summer day, after a child had been knocked down by a passing car, the neighborhood demanded that Boynton Avenue be turned into a one-way street. A crowd of protesters gathered on the sidewalk with crudely fabricated signs. The crowd started to chant, "Sit down strike! Sit down strike!" A barricade of milk crates was formed across the width of the street and protesters sat on the crates preventing traffic from moving through. Police arrived, some words were exchanged and the incident came to an end.... I suppose if I had grown up in a more genteel place this kind of thing would not happen. But this was the Bronx in the thirties. It was not a neighborhood of patsies. We got our one-way street.

The second incident occurred when Stanley was four or five years old. His cousin, Stanley Norden, a year and a half older, who lived in the same neighborhood, had come over to play. (The two Stanleys were named after the same grandfather.) They were playing in the bedroom, with cousin Stanley sitting on the floor between two beds. According to Milgram: "I decided to 'measure' the distance between the beds by stretching a belt from one bed-post to the other. The belt slipped, and the buckle, with its sharp spindle, fell on Stanley's head causing a small flow of blood. Stanley began to cry and ran to Aunt Mary [his mother] who was chatting with Morn in the kitchen."

Milgram was soundly scolded by his mother, making him cry. He felt miserable about his misdeed, even though it was an accident and he hadn't meant to hurt his cousin. "Still, to be blamed for such things was a burden. But whether I learned my lesson remains unclear. For many years later, was I not again to become an object of criticism for my efforts to measure something without due regard to the risks it entailed for others?"

Samuel Milgram was a proud father. His children were the smartest and the most beautiful. He always referred to them as his "treasures." Marjorie was his Hungarian princess, and he often boasted about his four-year-old son, Stanley, who could recite the Pledge of Allegiance and Mother Goose rhymes by heart. Stanley identified strongly with his father, even idolized him:

To any child, who views things from two feet off the ground, all fathers must look big and strong, but Sam seemed especially sturdy.... What intense joy we experienced jumping on Dad's chest as he lay on the rug of our apartment, sliding down his knees.... When, many years later, I had children of my own, I recall how on Sunday mornings, they would jump all over me in bed, balance themselves on my forked knees, enact little circus performances in which my legs became the stable platforms from which they giggled through their antics and I thought of my father and the delicious joy of jumping on his accommodating chest.

It was a special source of pride to Stanley that everyone said he looked like Sam. Later, Stanley's wife would comment:

He resembled his father very much physically.... His nose looked like it was flattened at the tip, and I never said anything when I first met Stanley. But when I saw the photo of Stanley's father, I thought, Oh! He resembled his father so much that the story goes when Stanley was a little boy playing in the park, and some family members on his father's side came from Europe, and were looking for where the house was, they saw Stanley and recognized him as Sam's son.

One of Stanley's fondest and most vivid childhood memories was accompanying his father as the family moved to a new apartment on Ward Avenue, on the other side of the elevated train tracks running along Westchester Avenue:

After most of the furniture had been packed into a moving truck, Dad wanted to take over some clothing and small items to the new apartment.... He filled [a] cart with clothing, lamps and other household paraphernalia and probably against Mom's objection-she had a stronger sense of decorum-was going to transport the items three or four blocks to the new house. To my great joy I was invited to get into the cart and go along for the ride.... It was not a pushcart type of neighborhood: black Chews and Buick sedans lined the streets. Perhaps the sight of Dad pushing the wagon up Boynton Avenue struck onlookers as eccentric. But I had just turned five. No captain of a frigate could have surveyed the passing channels with greater pride, as I sat atop the bundles of clothing, moving northward on Boynton Avenue toward our new place, the vessel powered by my very own father, strong as Hercules.

* * *

When the United States entered World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Milgrams lived at 1239 Ward Avenue, only two blocks from their previous home on Boynton Avenue. One side of the block was made up of virtually identical brick two-family houses with postage-stamp-sized front lawns. The Milgrams occupied the upstairs apartment of one such house. It was larger than their previous apartment, and they had moved there soon after Joel was born to accommodate the needs of a growing family.

As the country mobilized for war, Sam felt the need to take steps to ensure that he would not be drafted. He was now forty-three, which made conscription unlikely. But he had fought in World War I-had even been a POW-and he did not relish the thought of having to repeat the experience. So in late 1942 he moved his family temporarily to Camden, New Jersey, to train and work as a welder in the shipyards.


Excerpted from THE MAN WHO SHOCKED THE WORLD by THOMAS BLASS Copyright © 2004 by Thomas Blass, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Thomas Blass, Ph.D., a professor of social psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is the undisputed expert on Milgram's life and work. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

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