Obedience to Authority
The Small World Experiment - "Six Degrees of Separation"
In 1954 Harvard’s Department of Social Relations took the unusual step of admitting a bright young student who had not taken a single psychology course. Fortunately Stanley Milgram was soon up to speed in social psychology, and in the course of his doctoral work at Harvard he conducted an innovative cross-cultural comparison of conformity in Norway and France under the guidance of Gordon Allport.
Obtaining his Ph.D. in 1960, Milgram was ready to expand his work on conformity with a series of experiments on obedience to authority that he conducted as an assistant professor at Yale from 1960 to 1963. Inspired by Hannah Arendt’s report on the trial of Adolph Eichmann in Jerusalem, Milgram wondered whether her claims about “the banality of evil” – that evil acts can come from ordinary people following orders as they do their jobs – could be demonstrated in the lab. Milgram staged meticulously designed sham experiments in which subjects were ordered to administer dangerous shocks to fellow volunteers (in reality, the other volunteers were confederates and the shocks were fake). Contradicting the predictions of every expert he polled , Milgram found that more than seventy percent of the subjects administered what they thought might be fatal shocks to an innocent stranger. Collectively known as The Milgram Experiment, this groundbreaking work demonstrated the human tendency to obey commands issued by an authority figure, and more generally, the tendency for behavior to be controlled more by the demands of the situation than by idiosyncratic traits of the person.
The Milgram Experiment is one of the best-known social psychology studies of the 20th century. With this remarkable accomplishment under his belt, young Dr. Milgram returned to Harvard in 1963 to take a position as Assistant Professor of Social Psychology.
During this time at Harvard, Milgram undertook a new, equally innovative line of research, known as the Small World Experiment. Milgram asked a sample of people to trace out a chain of personal connections to a designated stranger living thousands of miles away. His finding that most people could do this successfully with a chain of six or fewer links yielded the familiar expression “Six Degrees of Separation,” which later became the name of a play and a movie, a source for the game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” and a major theme of Malcolm Gladwell’s 2000 bestseller, The Tipping Point. The internet has made it easier to study social networks, and several decades after its discovery, the phenomenon has become a subject of intense new research.
Stanley Milgram left Harvard in 1967 to return to his hometown, New York City, accepting a position as head of the social psychology program at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Tragically, he died of a heart attack at the age of 51. Milgram is listed as number 46 on the American Psychological Association’s list of the 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century.
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Eminent psychologists of the 20th century. (July/August, 2002). Monitor on Psychology, 33(7), p.29.
Milgram, S. (1977). The individual in a social world. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co.