Milgram’s Other Work

Stanley Milgram is one of the most famous people in the history of psychology, and also one of the most controversial. His experiments on obedience, in which an experimenter asked participants to administer higher and higher levels of shock to a protesting victim, gained national attention in the 1960’s. Many people attacked his work as brutal and immoral. After the public outcry over his research, Milgram never studied obedience again. However, he did continue to conduct research in other areas of social psychology. His later work, while certainly not as well known, is also interesting and remains influential to this day.
After conducting his obedience experiments, Milgram was denied tenure at Harvard and moved to the City University of New York (CUNY). There, he conducted an experiment on the “small world problem,” a precursor to the concept of Six Degrees of Separation. Long before Facebook and other social networks, Milgram studied how people are connected to one another through chains by asking randomly selected participants to forward a letter through their friends and acquaintances in an attempt to reach a particular target – a stockbroker in Boston. Surprisingly, 22% of the letters did reach the intended recipient, suggesting something that Facebook and LinkedIn have capitalized on – our social networks can connect us to people we never would have expected.

Milgram also studied what happens when people violate social norms by cutting in line. He found that the people behind the line cutter were more likely to protest than those in front (suggesting that self-interest is an important motivator for why people protest), and that placing confederates (actors) in the line who did not protest decreased the likelihood that others in the line would protest the intrusion. This suggests that we look to others to tell us how to behave in social situations.

While Milgram’s later experiments are often overshadowed by his obedience studies, they deserve recognition as part of the body of research that this important figure in social psychology produced.

For further reading:

Milgram, Stanley; Liberty, Hilary J.; Toledo, Raymond; & Wackenhut, Joyce (1986). Response to intrusion into waiting lines. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 51(4), 683-689. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.51.4.683
Travers, Jeffrey & Milgram, Stanley. (1969). An Experimental Study of the Small World Problem. Sociometry, Vol. 32, No. 4, 425-443.