Stanley Milgram

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Stanley Milgram bigraphy, stories - Social psychologist

Stanley Milgram : biography

August 15, 1933 – December 20, 1984

Stanley Milgram (August 15, 1933 – December 20, 1984) was an American social psychologist.

He conducted various studies and published articles during his lifetime, with the most notable being his controversial study on obedience to authority, conducted in the 1960s during his professorship at Yale. Milgram was influenced by the events of the Holocaust, specifically the trial of Adolf Eichmann, in developing this experiment.

His dissertation while at Harvard, small-world experiment, would later help researchers articulate the mechanics of social networks and explore the mathematical relation to the degree of connectedness, most notably the six degrees of separation concept.

Small world phenomenon

The six degrees of separation concept originates from Milgram’s "small world experiment" in 1967 that tracked chains of acquaintances in the United States. In the experiment, Milgram sent several packages to 160 random people living in Omaha, Nebraska, asking them to forward the package to a friend or acquaintance who they thought would bring the package closer to a set final individual, a stockbroker from Boston, Massachusetts. Each "starter" received instructions to mail a folder via the U.S. Post Office to a recipient, but with some rules. Starters could only mail the folder to someone they actually knew personally on a first-name basis. When doing so, each starter instructed their recipient to mail the folder ahead to one of the latter’s first-name acquaintances with the same instructions, with the hope that their acquaintance might by some chance know the target recipient. Given that starters knew only the target recipient’s name and address, they had a seemingly impossible task. Milgram monitored the progress of each chain via returned "tracer" postcards, which allowed him to track the progression of each letter. Surprisingly, he found that the very first folder reached the target in just four days and took only two intermediate acquaintances. Overall, Milgram reported that chains varied in length from two to ten intermediate acquaintances, with a median of five intermediate acquaintances (i.e. six degrees of separation) between the original sender and the destination recipient. This concept became popularized by Jon Stewart’s Daily Show in the mid-1990s -according to its creators, "a stupid party trick"-called Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Milgram’s "six degrees" theory has been severely criticized. He did not follow up on many of the sent packages, and as a result, scientists are unconvinced that there are merely "six degrees" of separation. Elizabeth DeVita–Raebu has discussed potential problems with Dr. Milgrams’s experiment.

In 2008, a study by Microsoft showed that the average chain of contacts between users of its ‘.NET Messenger Service’ (later called Microsoft Messenger service) was 6.6 people.

Biography

Early life

Stanley Milgram was born in 1933 to a Jewish family in New York City, the child of a Romanian-born mother, Adele (née Israel), and a Hungarian-born father, Samuel Milgram. Milgram’s father worked as a baker to provide a modest income for his family until his death in 1953 (upon which Stanley’s mother took over the bakery). Milgram excelled academically and was a great leader among his peers. In 1954, Milgram received his Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science from Queens College, New York where he attended tuition-free. He applied to a Ph.D. program in social psychology at Harvard University and was initially rejected due to an insufficient background in psychology (he had not taken one undergraduate course in psychology while attending Queens College). He was eventually accepted to Harvard in 1954 after first enrolling as a student in Harvard’s Office of Special Students.

Professional life

In 1960, Milgram received a Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Harvard. He became an assistant professor at Yale in the fall of 1960. He became an assistant professor in the Department of Social Relations at Harvard in the summer of 1963 until 1966, when he became a lecturer until 1967. Most likely because of his controversial Milgram Experiment, Milgram was denied tenure at Harvard after becoming an assistant professor there. In 1967 he accepted an offer to become a tenured full professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center (Blass, 2004). Milgram had a number of significant influences, including psychologists Solomon Asch and Gordon Allport. Milgram influenced numerous psychologists including Alan C. Elms, who was Milgram’s first graduate assistant in the study of obedience. Milgram died on December 20, 1984 of a heart attack in New York, the city in which he was born. He left behind a widow, Alexandra "Sasha" Milgram, and two children.