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Monday, February 20, 2012


What did pioneering social scientist Stanley Milgram and comedian Redd Foxx have in common?

Both cried wolf at least once too often.

In 1962/63, Milgram gained national notoriety for laboratory experiments that conned subjects into believing that they were administering electric shocks to other subjects to facilitate their learning. (The subjects on the receiving end of the juice were imposters; the shock machine only appeared to shock.) When the true subject, i.e., the shocker, had second thoughts about administering increasing voltage, a confederate of Milgram’s—an authority figure in a lab coat—would urge the shocker to continue. The experiments served up the shocking conclusion that Americans were excessively obedient in the company of an authority figure.

Milgram paid a price for the downside of his fame and his methods—Some colleagues and students were never quite sure when and if he might be putting them on.

Which brings us to a tale of disbelief at Harvard University on November 22, 1963. Here it is, according to Thomas Blass’ terrific book about Milgram, The Man Who Shocked the World:

So when . . . [Milgram] burst into Emerson Hall in the midst of a lecture by Talcott Parsons about the nature of the social system, and rushed to the podium yelling, I have horrible news. President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas,” he was met with outrage and skepticism. Barry Wellman, now a sociologist at the University of Tornoto remembers blurting out: You’re just doing another experiment on us.

And what about Redd Foxx? Scarcely an episode of the 1970s TV series Sanford and Son went by without his character, Fred Sanford, clutching his chest and crowing to his long-suffering son, Lamont, “Oh! It’s the big one; Elizabeth [Fred’s deceased wife], I’m coming to join you, honey!”

Years later (1991), when Mr. Foxx collapsed at a rehearsal on the set of his new CBS television series, The Royal Family, his costar, Della Reese, and much of the cast at first suspected that he was treating them to his signature routine. But they soon realized the truth: Mr. Foxx was down for the count at age 68.