“disbelief in authority: jfk, milgram, and me” by barry wellman

Friday marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.  Given this occasion, guest blogger Barry Wellman asked me to post, on his behalf, his 1993 article “Disbelief in Authority: JFK, Milgram and Me.

Here’s an excerpt from the beginning:

Update: Here’s the entire excerpt, with Barry’s permission:


Reminiscences for the 30th Anniversary of Obedience to Authority, Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association, Toronto

Barry Wellman, Department of Sociology, University of Toronto

August, 1993

Not only was 1963 the year that Stan Milgram’s Obedience to Authority was published, it was also the year that Stan, JFK and I came together for one explosive moment in November.

SOC REL 200 was the centerpiece of Harvard’s Social Relations Department. Each week a Harvard star gave new graduate students the word on his[1] latest masterpiece.  Each week, I sat shaking in my seat, a New York City street kid who had never studied sociology before, trying to figure out what was going on and to make believe that I already knew.

You’ll recall that Soc Rel’s raison d’etre was to bring together social and clinical psychologists with sociologists and anthropologists. In no other graduate school, would I have routinely encountered Erik Erikson or Roger Brown, or met Stan Milgram.

Stan was new at Harvard too, an untenured professor. I didn’t know if he was shaking or not. In those days I looked at faculty members with awe, and even addressed them as “Professor”. (Nowadays, when a Toronto student calls me “Professor,” I immediately wonder what s/he wants out of me.) In mid-November, Stan did SOC REL 200. He enthralled us with the shocking news of his then-recent “obedience to authority” experiments. This clearly was a formidable guy; this clearly was a crafty guy. You’d never know when he’d pull an experiment on you.

The following week, Talcott Parsons lectured to SOC REL 200 about the nature of social systems. In the midst of Talcott’s guided tour through the labyrinth of A, G, I and L boxes, Stan Milgram burst into the lecture hall, and rushed to the podium.

“I have horrible news,” he announced. “President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas!”

“Cut the crap, Milgram,” I remember blurting out from my seat, forgetting even to call him “Professor”. “You’re just doing another experiment on us.”

“No, it’s true! Listen, Ed Kelly has it on his radio.”

Sure enough, Ed Kelly (then a psychology graduate student) brought in a transistor radio which kept announcing that President Kennedy had been shot.

“This guy Milgram sure is a great experimenter,” I said to my classmates. “Just like Orson Welles, he’s even rigged up a simulated radio broadcast to convince us that this is true. I wonder what the experiment is really about.”

It was only after we left Emerson Hall,[2] went out into Harvard Yard and talked to others, that we realized that JFK had been shot and that Stan Milgram had only been telling us the truth this time.

The “experiment” had been an inadvertent one: my persistent denial of a painful truth. However, I am sure that if Stan Milgram hadn’t had such a reputation as an imaginative researcher and hadn’t demonstrated it just a week before, I would have accepted the news much more easily.


Stan and I became friendly after this. I was a great fan of his ingenious experiments and noble goals. I especially remember the time in the mid-sixties that he mailed a bunch of envelopes to the southern US. Some of the envelopes had return addresses indicating that they were from racerelations groups; others were more innocuous. Sure enough, many of the race-relations envelopes were opened en route, Milgram had a trick to show that.

Stan and I have kept on dancing around the same issues — similar perspectives, different techniques. His “Small World” research became one of the touchstones of social network analysis. Our communities are far-flung networks. Stan showed that we’re all connected to each other by five (or fewer) interpersonal ties. My students are skeptical of this until I demonstrate that they’re all linked to Wayne Gretzky: one of my students always knows him, or knows someone who knows someone who knows him. They’re even more convinced (although less excited) when I demonstrate our links to Inner Mongolian yak herders (three indirect ties via one of my graduate students).

Stan moved to CUNY and New York City; they taught each other many things. I think warmly of Stan every year when my urban sociology students read “The Experience of Living in Cities” (Ed: see article) — which is about everywhere but reeks of New York. Stan not only talked about the lack of neighborhood community; he showed how to investigate it — simply and neatly. You must remember that Toronto is both the safest and the most uptight city in North America. People here fear interpersonal contact when they have the least reason to do so. Right after reading Stan’s article, I send my students out to do an experiment: “Just look people in the eye and smile at them. Record who smiles back, by age, gender, social circumstances and personal characteristics.” Most

Toronto students find this hard to do, but they plunge in as a wild adventure. They report that almost all of the people they smiled at, violently twist their heads away from them.

We call this experiment, “The Neckbreaker”. Stan would have loved it.

[1] Sexist pronoun empirically accurate.

[2] Where Love Story was later filmed.

Written by katherinechen

November 22, 2013 at 3:56 am

3 Responses

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  1. The Neckbreaker reminds me of a question I’ve always had about Milgram’s experiments. Presumably the smile that is repelling people here is insincere, right? The experimenter is smiling in order to get (and gauge) a reaction, not in order to be genuinely friendly. Isn’t it possible that the Torontonian is simply a bit uncomfortable with the weirdly “experimental” smile, and the strangely objective gaze of the eyes that go with it?

    One of my favorite sentences is Beckett’s “Watt had watched people smile and thought he understood how it was done.” While Watt’s smile does clearly look more like a smile than a sneer or yawn, Beckett explains, “to many it seemed a simple sucking of the teeth.” Then, a few pages later, there’s a funny episode where Watt meets a man. “My name is Spiro,” says the man. Watt smiles. “No offence meant,” says Spiro.

    It seems to me that given such moments in literature, we don’t need experimental social science to tell us how smiling works in public. But if the aim is to use this sort of data to “prove” empirically that Torontonians are “uptight” or suffer from a “lack of neighborhood community”, well, that’s just silly right? Moreover, it’s not silly, but outright sinister, when Milgram’s experiments are taken to prove that human beings are capable of cruelty in some particular way. (I’ve always preferred to think that some part of the experimental subjects in Milgram’s experiments knew that no one was being electrocuted, i.e., that the acting was not wholly convincing. But that there are people who are capable of such things in real life, I never doubted.)

    Notice, precisely, that we don’t need science to show us this. We already know that people are capable of cruelty and that it’s hard to deal with strangers who smile at us. What makes me uneasy about it is that science goes ahead and demonstrates it anyway. Why? That’s the sinister part.

    Leave aside all the cases when social science simply gets it wrong or the data has been made up. What is happening when science certifies the uptightness of Torontonians, the racist paranoia (?) of the postal service in the South, the seed of fascism in all of us? Surely there needed no ghost come from the grave to tell us these things? What game is social science playing here?



    November 24, 2013 at 7:11 pm

  2. But the point of the Milgram obedience experiments wasn’t to prove that there are some people who are capable of sinister things. But rather what would make people like me or you do sinister things when we are seemingly nonsinister people typically. Believe the study is most powerful in that regard and certainly worthwhile. And to me always best understood when put alongside Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem.


    Scott Dolan

    November 27, 2013 at 12:15 pm

  3. Yes, but the answer is that authority sometimes makes people like you and me do cruel things they wouldn’t otherwise do. Again, if you need science to tell you that, you have not looked long enough into the “mirror of nature” of the arts (i.e., in Hamlet’s sense, not Rorty’s).

    Milgram’s approach is suited to teaching morality to people who are wholly “innocent” of ethical experience and who wish to maintain that innocence. And these are precisely the kinds of people who feel they’ve learned something after smiling at people for a day. Indeed, they take this to be a “wild adventure”.

    Arendt’s observations about Eichmann are certainly worth discussing, but they are not scientific.



    November 27, 2013 at 8:34 pm

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