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.

Bi-Polarity of the Ultimate

bi-polarity, personal identity, pogroms, transcendence

I.         A glorious side:

— We sometimes experience a vague sense of something larger than ourselves that bears on our life, a glimpse of some sort of Ultimate Reality.

— On occasion, an Ultimate Reality becomes compellingly real. And most compellingly comes the conviction that we actually have access to that Ultimate Reality; and from it we transcend all the shortcomings, all the failings, all the pain of the here and now, replaced by pure bliss.

— Viktor Frankl, in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning” tells us about a dying woman he encounters at Auschwitz. She is convinced that she has now achieved a state of access to the Ultimate, followed by pure bliss. She tells him that in all her life she has never been happier than right now. In my book, “Our quest for effective living: How we cope in Social Space / Window to a new science,” I give more examples about access to Ultimates that enchant people and appear to bring their yearnings within reach.

II.       There is also a deeply disturbing side:

— Access to the Ultimate can produce extraordinary vulnerability,

— limitless pain and disorientation,

— a seeming rupture of the core of one’s very being.

II-i:      How did I learn about this disturbing side?

II-ii.         From how Muslims responded with the most profound outrage to desecration of, to them, something sacred, the embodiment of the Ultimate:

(1) To a denigrating cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad in a Western newspaper.

(2) To a report that a page from the Koran was allegedly flushed down a toilet.

II-iii.       From my own life:

I was born into a Jewish family in a village in Germany. I was living there during Kristallnacht, the Nazi pogrom against Jews on November 9, 1938. That night the sacred Torah scrolls were dragged from our synagogue and thrown onto piles of manure. The memory of this desecration of the Torah scrolls is as painful to me, even now, 76 years later, as the murder of my parents and my brother. It has not left me. It shattered a part of my being.

III.         What does it all mean?

Our access to the Ultimate introduces us to bi-polarity of the Ultimate. On the one hand, it brings transcendence into our immediate, daily life. It helps us go beyond its limitations and encumbrances. It brings a profound sense of meaning to our personal identity by connecting us to the Ultimate. On the other hand, when that transcendence is desecrated – when the Ultimate is besmirched – transcendence once again enters our immediate, daily life. But now it does so in a form that seems to fracture and shatter our mental world, as our very identity is being destroyed.

Both polarities are part of our human condition!

The Second Path

dormant animosities, genocide, Holocaust, survivor guilt

I.   Individual manifestation

[a] A case of Holocaust survivors: I have  a list of six Holocaust survivors who became very successful writers after they survived the Holocaust.

— They achieved considerable fame and acclaim.

—Yet all of them, at the height of their fame, committed suicide.

—They surely had survivor guilt, feeling that they should not have survived when so many of their loved ones did not survive. That feeling of guilt was usually shunted into a Second Path within themselves, away from public visibility.

—However, I believe there is something else at work: not only  their memory of a terrible past, but something in their present situation that makes it impossible for them to continue to live.

——–They regard each new acclaim, each award they are getting, each success,  as indication that they are dancing on the grave of loved ones who did not live to have success.

———Each new “success” becomes more unbearable, until it becomes impossible to continue. Their survivor guilt no longer remained safely stored away in a Second Path.

——— It was now fully activated, generated by a new toxic item in their present  situation.

——— Their Social Space is now malignant. This was documented in the life of Primo Levi, the most famous of these writers.  Shortly before his suicide he tells a friend, “I can’t continue with this life, this is worse than Auschwitz”.  I ask, what made it worse than Auschwitz, did he win another award?

[b] The larger picture:

— In the everyday life of most of us there are daily Unmentionables: annoyances, fears, rage and, sometimes, real honesty that  we cannot express in public, especially in our work settings.

—They tend to be safeguarded by being shunted into a Second Path within ourselves. (That Second Path is a bit similar to the Freudian view of the subconscious.  But unlike Freud, I don’t claim that it all begins with early childhood experiences. Instead, I am convinced that the subconscious receives input from current, everyday experiences.)

—That Second Path is one of the components of Social Space. It is a safety valve for participating in Social Space.  But occasionally its content may erupt, transforming that Social Space.

II.      Community manifestation:

[a] A case of genocide: Rwanda in 1994 “…the ruling Hutus did it to the minority Tutsis. Close to a tenth of the population was destroyed….How was the slaughter done? By machete and nail-studded club, mainly. By hacking and slicing and pounding, essentially. Who did the work? This is perhaps the most unimagined part. The killers, by and large, were ordinary people – not jack-booted   representatives of the state. Neighbors did it — to neighbors. Pastors did it – to parishioners. Doctors did it – to patients. Schoolteachers did it—to pupils. In-laws did it – to in-laws.   Workers did it – to fellow workers at the township office of the local tire factory.”   (Cited in my book, “Confronting Evil” from Paul Henrickson. “Witness to the Unimaginable,” Washington Post, 15 November 1998.)

[b] The larger picture: Deep hatreds and animosities among people who live with each other, who have dealings – even close, intimate dealings – may ordinarily exist in dormant, subterranean form, shunted into a Second Path.

— Occasionally the content of that Second Path may erupt, resulting in totally unexpected levels of violence. It may also erupt in the form of individuals being merely complicit to violence – as among countless Germans remaining silent in the face of mass assaults on their Jewish neighbors during the Holocaust, which I experienced personally.

In short, thanks to the Second Path phenomenon, Social Space can contain dormant as well as overtly active components.  The dormant ones, being unconfronted,  can nurture horrendous levels of animosity.

Science is adventure of the mind

Basic science, medical science, mind's adventure, observing nature

From the cover of my “Our quest for effective living” book: SCIENCE IS MORE THAN OBSERVATION OF WHAT EXISTS IN NATURE.  SCIENCE IS ADVENTURE OF THE MIND.  IT TOOK MANY CREATIVE LEAPS OF THE MIND TO PRODUCE MODERN PHYSICS AND GENETIC BIOLOGY. THIS BOOK OFFERS CREATIVE LEAPS TO HELP US UNDERSTAND THE SOCIAL SPACE IN WHICH WE LIVE OUR LIVES.  READ AND JOIN THE ADVENTURE.  We can learn  much from the medical sciences. Their successes during the past century  — such as the conquest of polio, and so many other diseases which medical science has eliminated or, at least, keep from ruining lives — are truly staggering. Behind these successes is that medical scientists discovered a number of basic phenomena – such as the workings of bacteria, the structure of DNA, the operation of neurotransmitters — which underlie much of disease and, even, ordinary healthy functioning of our minds and bodies. These discoveries required more than observation of what exists in nature. They required — as the physicist Henry Margenau taught us — taking a chance on mental leaps that explain observations. I am convinced we can, similarly, discover basic phenomena if we take a cool look at ingredients of what I am calling the Social Space in which we humans operate.   I take leaps into that space in my book, “Our quest for effective living: How we cope in Social Space / A window to a new science.”

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:

There is more than one Universe!

new science, social space, Watson and Crick

I. –Physicists speak about studying “the universe,” as though there is only one universe. Yes, they have developed astonishingly successful science. But is there really only one universe?

II. –In the last century, since Watson and Crick clarified the structure of DNA, genetic science has exploded into an increasingly powerful science, yielding profound new insight about biology and disease. This suggests that they opened up science about quite another universe: the universe of genetic space.

III. –This also suggests that physics is really about the study and understanding of ONE KIND of universe: the universe of physical space. And genetics is about another kind of universe, the universe of genetic space.

IV. –I suggest that there is yet another universe, the universe of Social Space. So far, we don’t have a science about Social Space that is anywhere nearly as well developed as physics and genetics. My recent book takes a stab at fostering science about Social Space. Its title is “Our quest for effective living: How we cope in Social Space / A window to a new science.” I’ll say more about this book in future posts on this blog. And my website — — also gives more information about that book.