The Electric Shock experiments: They teach us more than their creator, Stanley Milgram, realized

authoritarian personality, Milgram, obedience, psychological experiments, social psychology, social space

The background: How could the Holocaust, with its grotesque character of mass murder happen in a country as “civilized” as modern Germany? Was it due to Germans being brought up to be obedient to authority – thanks to German authoritarian fathers, who set them up for it? Surely Americans, with their very different upbringing, would not be so prone to obedience.   Stanley Milgram, a young psychologist, set out to test this hunch in what became known as a series of famous electric shock experiments in a laboratory at Yale University, starting in 1961.

To Milgram’s surprise his American participants in the experiment behaved just like the proverbial Germans – they obeyed orders when a person in authority demanded that they perform horrifying actions. Milgram believed this indicates that obedience-to-authority is not merely a matter of the German character but that, on the contrary, it is a distinctly human attribute – one we all share.

It occurs to me that Milgram failed to recognize a fundamental feature of his experiments. Yes, there was obedience-to-authority. But something else took place as well.   In his experiment Milgram unwittingly, but in reality, created a Closed Moral World. It contained a specific set of values and rewards. These persuaded the participants that by their own actions they were making very important contributions to science, even if these actions were difficult for them. And they were doing so under the umbrella, and tacit approval, of a famous university. At the same time their outside morality, their moral upbringing, was emphatically excluded.

Perhaps the saddest outcome was that the participants accepted the new moral system, this “Closed Moral World”. Despite diverging from their own upbringing, they felt good about taking part in it.

I explore such “Closed Moral Worlds” — how they happen in the real world, not only in artificially contrived laboratory experiments – in my book, Fred Emil Katz, OUR QUEST FOR EFFECTIVE LIVING: A WINDOW TO A NEW SCIENCE / HOW WE COPE IN SOCIAL SPACE.

Living with uncertainty

heisenberg, limits, physics, social psychology, sociology, uncertainty principle

1.  There is much we don’t know. Yet in our daily life we have to act even when we don’t have all the facts, when uncertainty is real, and all around us. How do we manage? IT IS BECAUSE WE OFTEN KNOW THE LIMITS OF OUR UNCERTAINTY — WE CAN KNOW THESE LIMITS QUITE PRECISELY AND ACCURATELY.

2.  When I tell my doctor about my symptoms, my various aches and pains, I don’t know what the doctor’s response will be; what diagnosis is produced; what I am going to be instructed to do about my health fears I bring to the doctor. In short, I don’t know what the doctor’s response will be, even though that response may have a vital impact on my life.   How can I live with that lack of knowledge? With that uncertainty? It is because there is something I DO KNOW. It is that the doctor is supposed to work – to make the assessment about my symptoms – within currently accepted Western medical science. These are the constraints, the LIMITS within which the doctor is expected to function. For me, the patient, this enables me to accept the doctor’s assessment and suggestions about my state of health. I know, and the doctor knows, the LIMITS within which the transaction between me and the doctor takes place.       This is just one of many examples I could cite, to show how we live with uncertainty in our daily life.

3.  Now, in my 87th year, I remind myself that forty years ago when I was supposed to attend an international conference for physicists, I prepared a paper that suggested an answer to living with uncertainty that fits with physical science. I called it “Bounded Indeterminacy”. It was my sociologist’s arrogant claim that I could teach physicists something new about their own understanding of the Heisenberg “Uncertainty Principle.”  (The conference — which was to be held in Moscow — did not take place, because the Soviet Union authorities did not allow it to be held.  But the papers were eventually published as a book.  See #1, below.)

[My interest in Indeterminacy resulted in these publications: (1) “Bounded Indeterminacy: A Component Part of the Structure of Systems” in COLLECTIVE PHENOMENA AND THE APPLICATIONS OF PHYSICS TO OTHER FIELDS OF SCIENCE: Brain Research Publications, 1975. Edited by Norman Chigier and Edward Stern. (2) “Indeterminacy and General Systems Theory” in UNITY THROUGH DIVERSITY: Gordon and Breach Science Publishers, 1973. Edited by William Gray and Nicholas Rizzo. (3) “Indeterminacy in the Structure of Systems” in BEHAVIORAL SCIENCE, Vol. 19, #6, 1974)]

4.  Bounded Indeterminacy can also say something important about religion. Namely, that the God Principle is really about the Ultimate LIMIT to our uncertainties, to not-knowing. For religious believers in a divinity, in what I call the God Principle, there is a definite LIMIT – an end-point – to all uncertainty. We can call this God, or, if not “religious”, we can all it an underlying orderliness of nature which, even though we can never know it completely, parts of it can be known with real assurance. I call it, living with Bounded Indeterminacy.


new science, personality, social psychology, social space, sociology, subconscious

As we go about our daily life, most of us, most of the time, are reasonably confident and self-assured. And that is how we usually display ourselves to those around us. Yet that public posture can hide a dimension — a Second Path — that is quite different. That Second Path stores our daily Unmentionables — our uncertainties, fears, rage, even inappropriate honesty, and more. These Unmentionables may exist, persist, and even continue to grow in subterranean ways. They can occasionally erupt into the open, unpredictably and destructively transforming one’s life.

Examples I mention in my book – Our quest for effective living: A window to a new science  /  How we cope in Social Space –   highly successful persons committing suicide, and ostensibly powerful persons having a very vulnerable side to their person. Also,  that the Second Path can contain some of what is best in us: our uncompromising sense of decency which cannot currently be expressed.

You will recognize some similarity to the Unconscious Mind, as studied by Freud.  The Second Path differs from it in that I see it being fed from our present, ongoing life — not merely from early childhood experiences, as Freud emphasized.

Please see, also, my short E-Book: “The Second Path in our Life.”


genocide, identity, mass killings, morality, social psychology






This is addressed in Fred Emil Katz’ book, “Our quest for effective living: How we cope in Social Space / A window to a new science.”

And in his short E-Book, “Closed Moral Worlds.”


charisma, charismatic leaders, germany, leadership, social psychology, transcendence


—Discussed in Fred Emil Katz’ book, “Our quest for effective living: A window to a new science / How we cope in Social Space.”

—And discussed in his E-book, “Hitler: The False Messiah Phenomenon.”

Hitler == A false messiah

germany, Hitler, Messiah, social psychology, sociology

I. The credo: The false messiah claims to produce access to the Ultimate, the very grandest objectives of life, and make it happen here and now. It will materialize if you follow the messiah unquestioningly.  Whatever he demands is holy writ.  He, personally, is totally unique.

II.  The impact:  Once the idea that the messiah brings access to the Ultimate is embraced, it impassions people to follow his directives with utmost fervor, no matter how extreme, how malicious are the directives.

III.  Hitler is the messiah!  He was regarded by most of his followers as a man of superhuman  attributes, a man who would catapult Germany to its greatest destiny through his leadership.  That leadership would restore, revitalize, and activate Germany’s dormant energy.  It would bring forth Germany’s rightful glory, before which the world would stand in awe.  On the individual German citizen, Hitler would bestow a sense of personal fulfillment and pride never before experienced.  He would bring many fond wishes to fruition.  He embodied and personified their innermost yearnings.  In effect, he was, to many, a messiah (although they did not use that term).

IV.  The nature of “messiah” (false ones and true ones):

A sociologist’s view:

—  The messiah is a person who, through his or her own life, is believed to bring and personify a profound moral message.

—  The messiah’s message is directed to the individual person, the citizen, the member of the community, the ordinary human being.

—  He does so in a very personal way, offering one a personal access to moral salvation, personal access to sublime and ultimate moral grace.

—  The individual, in response to the message of the messiah, is expected to act in one’s own life in a manner that connects one to the messiah’s demonstrated vision of the state of ultimate grace.

—  Through one’s actions one thereby helps to actualize the messiah’s wondrous vision. The individual is not passive.  Instead, one actively contributes, through one’s own behavior, to transforming the messiah’s vision into concrete reality.

V.  False messiahs are difficult to expose because followers are actively and personally involved in the messianic process.  They derive a sense of personal empowerment from the messiah’s message, mostly because they became heavily engaged in carrying out that messianic message.

VI.  My book about Social Space develops this more fully, including the difference between Christian and Jewish perspectives to the messiah phenomenon.

— I claim that they are not far apart.  (See, “Our quest for effective living: How we cope in Social Space / A window to a new science.”)

Closed Moral Worlds

morality, social psychology

Why did I come to be interested in what I call “Closed Moral Worlds”?

I.     My discomfort about the most famous social psychology experiment conducted during the last century: Stanley Milgram’s electric shock experiment.

— The Milgram experiment:

——claimed to study obedience-to-authority.

——Milgram had groups of individuals believing they were taking part in a learning experiment – where individuals who made mistakes were punished by receiving an electric shock.

——Actually, this was make-believe – there were no electric shocks. But the subjects of the research did not know this. They believed they were actually punishing innocent people by giving them electric shocks. They were told, by doing so, they were making a real contribution to science. And they believed it. And followed the instruction to inflict electric shocks to    learners who made mistakes.

II.     I admire the ingenuity of that experiment. But disagree with Milgram’s own interpretation of what he discovered:

— That it was only about obedience-to-authority.

—–What actually happened is that Milgram – unwittingly, but actually – created a distinct “morality” in the confines of the experiment where the participants found themselves.

——–The “morality” Milgram created in the experiment:

———–Had very real incentives and rewards for the behavior demanded of the participants.

———–Participants were led to believe they were making important  contributions to science, and doing so by temporarily being part of a famous university (Yale).

———-Deliberate exclusion of participants’ “outside” morality — which would be appalled by hurting innocent persons.

III.  I looked at other Closed Moral Worlds —   not merely the one in an artificially contrived laboratory experiment, as Milgram had done – but in real life situations. Here is one:

—-“Ordinary Men” (the  title of a study by the historian Christopher Browning ) of older men, who were not crazed Nazis or zealots of any sort, but who, during the Holocaust, became active exterminators of thousands of innocent people in Poland.

——–There, too, a Closed Moral World came into existence

——– with its own set of incentives and rewards that produced a “morality” of its own. (I describe this much more fully in the book “Our quest for effective living: How we cope in Social Space /A window to a new science”).


Immediacy, social psychology, sociology

“We humans expect.

We humans remember.

We humans think.

We humans believe.

—-What do these mental processes have in common?

They manipulate our personal and social space.

They bring into that space things from the past, things from the  future, things from adjacent and distant places.

They establish links and, through them, create our immediate reality for us.

—-These links are guests that shape our everyday life. How do they behave when they arrive here?  They make imprints upon our social existence from the world around us.”*

*(From the Introduction to the chapter on Links in the book  “Our quest for effective living: How we cope in Social Space / A window to a new science” where I put some flesh on these bare bones, such as sexual links to non-sexual commercial transactions, links that come along with us when we visit our doctor, and when we are entranced while watching an opera, to name just a few. Also,  different types of links are identified and demonstrated — dormant ones and active ones, loud ones and silent ones. And most especially, that links give meaning to what we experience, to how a situation is understood because it is seen as relevant to other parts of our life.)

Also see my short E-Book, “Links: They give meaning to our Lives”.

We need science about Social Space

endangered human species, new science, social psychology, social space, sociology

I.   We are developing ever-more lethal  ways of dealing with our fellow-human beings. If we keep this up, we may extinguish our human species.

—-The level of killings in the Thirty Years War was matched in a few short years in World War I and in the American Civil War.

—-In the Second World War we incinerated thousands of individuals by fire-bombing entire cities and dropping atomic bombs.

—-During the past century we violently killed over 100 million individuals.

—-The possibility of nuclear warfare continues.

—-Killings by drones helps us to kill by pressing buttons in remote-control, without the inconvenience of facing the enemy.

—-We find ways to “morally” justify our lethal actions.

II.   It is all happening in the Social Space we humans occupy.

III.  We need to wake up and coolly assess the nature of that Social Space.  We need a real science about Social Space.  It is a necessary prelude to getting more effective control over life in Social Space.

IV.  I attempt to jump-start real science about Social Space in my book, “Our quest for effective living: How we cope in Social Space / A window to a new science.”  It is not a grand, final science about Social Space. It is a nibbling beginning, to which, I hope, you and others will contribute by going beyond my effort.  I want to be surpassed. Your effort my be helped by taking a look at my book’s website:

ABOUT THE BOOK “IMMEDIACY: How our world confronts us & How we confront our world”

Immediacy, social field, social psychology, sociology

At birth we humans, if left to our own devices, would not survive very long. Perhaps only a day. Much of our upbringing consists of learning to cope with the immediate circumstances we encounter in daily life. Our survival depends on it. Our happiness depends on it. Our effectiveness as human beings depends on it.

These immediate circumstances – the IMMEDIACY — is what this book is all about. It flows from my conviction that immediacy – any immediacy in which we humans find ourselves – has a distinct, identifiable character. That beyond the flux and flow of everyday life, and even beyond the bewildering multiplicity of events and circumstances that come our way, there is an orderliness in every Immediacy. And that orderliness can be identified and understood. This is the challenge I am trying to address in this book.

The book focuses on four dimensions of Immediacy – Transcendence, Constriction, Impinging, and Transformation. While doing so, the book illuminates the seductive appeal of cults and false messiahs; ways in which morality can turn out to sponsor social horrors; a hidden side of our personal careers — to list just a few out of several more issues that get illuminated.

I won’t go into each of the four dimensions of Immediacy. But to give you a taste of one of them, Impinging, let me just say that it grows out of the fact that social structures have the peculiarity that they are not only separate and distinct entities, yet they also INTERPENETRATE one another. This holds for every social structure – be it our family, the place where we work, the religious organization to which we belong, or any one of many other social organizations or institutions that exist in our society. They all interpenetrate one another, and they do so in quite specific ways. I describe that interpenetration as the “Rider phenomenon”, namely, how one context makes an imprint on another context. Here is an illustration:

We all know that in modern marketing, sex is frequently used to sell just about everything, from toothpaste to furniture to cars. It is a case of one sphere of our personal and social existence, such as one’s sexual identity and concerns impinging on quite another sphere, namely the sphere of commercial activity, of buying and selling goods and services that are not part of our sexuality at all. Sex, in the marketing of goods and services, is a silent “Rider” to much commercial activity, where it may act as a catalyst that promotes a particular business transaction.

RIDER is a phenomenon in its own right:

It can be silent (not openly acknowledged) but active, as in the sex rider to commercial activity.

It can be dormant for a period of time but available for full activation later, sometimes quite suddenly. (Examples: Anti-Semitism and other racial and ethnic prejudices and hatreds. These periodically erupt after periods of seeming disappearance.)

It can exist in veiled form, as in America’s anti-Obama racism.

It may flourish; and it may fade into oblivion. Some events, such as the bombing of Pearl Harbor (“Remember Pearl Harbor!”) flourish at some times as very loud and palpable reminders. At other times they fade, and are rarely mentioned.

Here, then, is a set of Rider attributes that have impact on the very nature of Immediacy. This makes them components of a science about Immediacy in our human social existence – which this book tries to generate.