Cover image of "The Man Who Shocked the World," a biography that focuses on the Stanley Milgram experiments

So, here’s a biography of one academic social psychologist by another one, and guess what? It’s fascinating! Most of the credit has to go to the subject of this book, Stanley Milgram, whose experiments without question made him the most famous social psychologist to ever trod the halls of academe.

You may never have heard Milgram’s name, but you’ve surely heard about at least two of his most famous experiments. One was the fiendishly clever research project he devised to study the small-world phenomenon, more popularly known as “Six Degrees of Separation.” His experiments yielded empirical evidence for the validity of that theory. However, the other, best known as Milgram’s “obedience experiments” or “pain experiments,” gets the lion’s share of the attention in this biography. It was these laboratory exercises, and especially the Milgram pain experiments, that were the primary sources of the man’s fame—and his notoriety.

The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram by Thomas Blass (2004) 385 pages ★★★★★ 

Diagram of the basic design of the Stanley Milgram experiments on obedience
The design of Stanley Milgram’s original pain experiment. Image: Modern Therapy

What would it take for you to inflict pain on someone else?

Milgram set out in the early 1960s, barely out of graduate school, to determine the extent to which people picked at random would inflict pain on others simply because they were urged to do so by a credible authority figure. He subjected hundreds of New Haven residents to a laboratory protocol in which a man presented as a professor asked them to administer more and more powerful electric shocks to a person in an adjoining room. Ostensibly, this was to correct his “errors” in answering questions that were part of a learning regimen.

To Milgram’s astonishment and that of his research assistants, staff, and virtually everyone he later shared his findings with, a staggeringly large proportion of otherwise seemingly sane, stable, even “nice” people followed instructions up to a level clearly labeled as dangerous. Less than 20 years after the end of World War II and the insanity of the Nazi era, this revelation was beyond shocking. To most, it was mortifying, because it cast such an unfavorable light on human behavior in every country, not just Germany. And it helped make Stanley Milgram so controversial in his field that he was denied the chance to secure a permanent faculty post at Harvard or Yale, where he trained, or at any other of the country’s most prestigious schools.

Chart depicting the small-world phenomenon, which takes a back seat to the Stanley Milgram experiments on obedience in this book
“Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” is a popular depiction of the small-world phenomenon. Stanley Milgram proved the theory’s validity in the laboratory. Image: HackerEarth

Short shrift to the small-world phenomenon

The emphasis author Thomas Blass places on the obedience experiments may well be justified from the perspective of a social psychologist. Milgram’s work in that area remains controversial to this day, alternately vilified and extolled as brilliant, and is still described in virtually every standard text in the field.

Unfortunately, the author gives short shrift to Milgram’s exploration of the small-world phenomenon, which may yet prove to have been far more significant from a broader perspective. The concept of “Six Degrees of Separation” has come to be understood as a fundamental property of all complex networks, from the Internet to atoms in a lattice to human society. Blass mentions this significance it what seems to be an afterthought, and his highly abbreviated description of Milgram’s experimental design is far too cryptic to make much sense.

In fact, Blass (or perhaps his publisher) betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of Milgram’s role in the history of the small-world phenomenon by referring to Milgram in the book’s subtitle as “the Father of Six Degrees.” In fact, the Hungarian short story writer who first advanced the hypothesis in 1929 is no doubt restlessly turning over in his grave at the insult.

An outstanding book despite the flaws

The Man Who Shocked the World is fascinating not just because of the profound implications of Stanley Milgram’s work but also because he was such a complex, colorful, and often brilliantly funny man. Interspersed among the descriptions of Milgram’s relationships with his teachers and fellow faculty members, and the lengthy descriptions of so many of his experiments, are excerpts from his extensive correspondence with family and friends. Milgram was an endlessly good-humored writer with an exceedingly non-academic way with words, and Thomas Blass shares just enough of the man’s writerly talents to make this book an outstanding read.

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