Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The many faces of Milgram

In the networks seminar class, we are currently discussing Milgram's small world experiment, and the various papers written about it. The small world experiment being that a bunch of people across the U.S. were selected to have a big packet sent to them. This packet directs them to send the packet through a chain of "handshakes" (people acquainted on a first-name basis) to get to a stockbroker in Boston.

What I had forgotten was that this character is the same guy who did the obedience to authority studies. The rather disturbing study that suggested that people don't mind causing pain to other beings, so long as a guy in a lab coat says it's OK. The funny thing is that the authority studies took place in 1963, four years before the small world experiment. Obviously, "Milgram studies" wasn't enough of a household name by 1967 to get people who received the folder to immediately toss it, saying "Whatever, this guy may say he wants me to get this packet to some dude in Boston, but really he's just going to kill my family."
The small-world study, of course, has some holes in it, but our conclusion was "pretty good for a sociologist in the 60's". They didn't have the resources available to us data-mining folk (according to [2], the Nebraska portion of the study had a budget of $680), and they weren't really interested in the statistics as much.

Dodds et. al [1] replicated the experiment on a much larger scale. I'm sure they had to go to a lot of IRB red tape to get that sort of permission, too. Thanks in part to Milgram, of course.

[1] P. Dodds, et al. An Experimental Study of Search in Global Social
Networks. Science 301, 827 (2003).

[2] J. Kleinfeld, The Small World Problem, Society, 39(2), 61-66 (2002)

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