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Jenny Diski

  • The Man who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram by Thomas Blass
    Basic Books, 360 pp, £19.99, June 2004, ISBN 0 7382 0399 8

Stanley Milgram’s series of experiments to find out how far individuals would go to obey authority are legendary. Conducted in New Haven, Connecticut in 1961, they have been cited in manuals written by dog trainers (Bones Would Rain from the Sky by Suzanne Clothier: do not follow dog-experts blindly … instincts … humanity) and self-help pundits (The Necessary Disobedience by Maria Modig, dedicated to Milgram: empowerment … taking responsibility), as well as being the source for a Peter Gabriel song entitled ‘We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)’. A French punk rock group called Milgram put out a CD called Vierhundertfünfzig Volt (‘450 Volts’). A British band called Midget issued The Milgram Experiment. Plays have been written (Dannie Abse’s The Dogs of Pavlov was the first, in 1973); a stand-up comedian, Robbie Chafitz, called his 1999 weekly off-off-Broadway performances The Stanley Milgram Experiment; a French movie with Yves Montand, I … comme Icare, made in 1979, came out of it, with Milgram himself pictured on the set; and a textbook used in courses on business ethics cites the obedience experiments to warn students about the evil things their bosses might ask of them and how to resist. I can’t say about the dog-training or self-help books, but this last educational effort doesn’t seem to have worked.

Milgram advertised for his subjects in the New Haven Register (Yale students were considered too aggressive to use), and paid them $4 for their hour’s attendance plus 50 cents’ travel allowance. Only males (except in one variation) were used, and they spanned occupational levels from unskilled to professional. Each subject sat alone at a fake ‘shock machine’ built by Milgram, which had 30 switches, labelled in 15-volt increments from 15 volts to 450 volts and grouped in fours, with descriptions above each group: slight shock, moderate shock, strong shock, very strong shock, intense shock, extreme intensity shock, danger severe shock. The final two switches were labelled just xxx. Each subject was told they were participating in a ‘Memory Project’, the aim of which was to study how people learn. They were ‘teachers’. In an adjoining room a ‘learner’ sat wired up to the shock machine. He had to repeat the second of pairs of words he was supposed to have learned. The ‘teacher’ cued with the first word. An incorrect answer was punished with an electric shock. With each wrong answer the ‘teacher’ was instructed to move up a switch. The learner, who was, of course, a member of Milgram’s team, could be heard but not seen, and as the switches were flipped, he began complaining until, at the higher voltages, he screamed in agony and begged the subject not to hurt him, demanding his right to be let out. In addition to hearing the pain they were inflicting, the subjects were told that the learner had a heart condition. Any reluctance was met by the experimenter saying in authoritative tones: ‘Please go on.’ After three prompts, the subject was told: ‘You have no choice, you must go on.’ If the subject refused after the fourth prompt, the experiment was stopped. In some of the variations, after the 300-volt shock the learner pounded on the wall, and then after 315 volts remained totally silent.

Overall, 65 per cent of subjects were prepared to administer the 450-volt shock, not once, but several times. They sweated, they groaned, they queried, but when told they had to do it ‘for the experiment’, they flipped the switch. Milgram wrote:

The results are terrifying and depressing. They suggest that human nature – or more specifically, the kind of character produced in American society – cannot be counted on to insulate its citizens from brutality and inhumane treatment at the direction of malevolent authority. In a naive moment some time ago, I once wondered whether in all of the United States a vicious government could find enough moral imbeciles to meet the personnel requirements of a national system of death camps, of the sort that were maintained in Germany. I am now beginning to think that the full complement could be recruited in New Haven. A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act, and without pangs of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority.

Not entirely without pangs – or perhaps pleas to be let off any moral responsibility.

The following is a quote from the transcript. The subject has just inflicted what he thinks is a 300-volt shock on the invisible learner next door.

LEARNER: [Agonised scream]

SUBJECT: I, I can’t do this any more. [chair scuffles]

LEARNER: I absolutely refuse to answer any more. Get me out of here. You can’t hold me here. Get me out. Get me out of here.

SUBJECT: I can’t do it any more. I’m sorry. I realise that you’re trying to do something.

EXPERIMENTER: The experiment requires that you continue to do so . . .

SUBJECT: Yes, I know. But I’m just not the type of person that can inflict pain to anyone else, uh, more than what I feel. I felt I’ve gone far beyond what I should.

EXPERIMENTER: It’s absolutely essential that you continue. Please go on.

SUBJECT: [chair scuffles] You know, I’m to the point now I can just feel each one with him. [sigh] The next one is GREEN: grass, hat, ink, apple . . .

The sighs continued and there were long pauses before each following shock was given, but this subject was fully obedient and went on to flip all the switches.

In the initial experiment there were 40 subjects. Many of those who went the whole 450 volts queried the authority in charge, but once they were told they had to, they continued even while expressing discomfort. Some were chillingly obedient. A 37-year-old welder’s response was described in detail. He was in a variation of the original experiment where the learner is present and the subject is required to press his hand down onto an electric plate to administer the shock.

The learner, seated alongside him, begs him to stop, but with robotic impassivity, he continues the procedure . . . He relates to the experimenter in a submissive and courteous fashion. At the 330-volt level, the learner refuses not only to touch the shock plate, but also to provide any answers. Annoyed, Batta turns to him and chastises him: ‘You better answer and get it over with. We can’t stay here all night.’ . . . He seems to derive no pleasure from the act itself, only quiet satisfaction at doing his job properly. When he administers 450 volts, he turns to the experimenter and asks: ‘Where do we go from here, Professor?’ His tone is deferential and expresses his willingness to be a co-operative subject, in contrast to the learner’s obstinacy.

In this hands-on variation, Milgram expected one or two subjects, at most, to go on to the final switch. In fact, 12 out of 40 were fully compliant. ‘It’s a very disturbing sight,’ Milgram noted, ‘since the victim resists strenuously and emits cries of agony.’ In the original experiment with an audible but invisible learner, 26 out of 40 subjects were fully obedient and pressed the 450-volt switch; no subject stopped before 300 volts, the ‘intense shock’ zone; five refused to go on beyond that point, and 14 defied the experimenter somewhere short of 450 volts.

But it must be just as important to consider the 35 per cent of subjects who did at some point refuse to continue. Early resistance to authority seemed to be the key, Milgram thought. The later they left it to complain, the greater the pressure to rationalise. Two examples of dissent are given in Thomas Blass’s book. One man puts his foot down at 135 volts:

EXPERIMENTER: The experiment requires that you go on, teacher. Go on, please.

SUBJECT: But if you don’t mind, I’d like to see him myself before I do go on.

EXPERIMENTER: . . . It’s absolutely essential that you continue, teacher. Go on.

SUBJECT: Well, I don’t know. I don’t think I’d like to take that myself, what he is taking right now.

EXPERIMENTER: You have no other choice.

SUBJECT: [sneering] I’ll give you your check back if you want.

The second dissenter does not finally refuse until 315 volts and is then told he has no other choice. ‘I have no other choice? Hmmm. Hmmm. [pause] I think I have.’ (It’s not clear to me whether my heart should soar at the man’s recognition of the individual’s personal responsibility in the matter of obeying authority, or sink because his refusal is in response to a challenge to his ego.)

Milgram discovers in his laboratory that there is a tendency to obey authority. But why? Because of an inherent obedience, deference to men in white coats, an unwillingness to spoil a ‘useful’ experiment, sadism, the curious inertia in life generally that makes it harder to stop than to start, a social anxiety against speaking up, or just conditioned good manners? It’s probably the case that politeness is the reason many victims, knowing it not to be wise, get into the cars of strangers or answer the door to them. Milgram opts for a vaguely sociobiological explanation that supposes social cohesion has made obedience a requirement for ‘fitness’, but even he doesn’t seem very convinced. A more central question remains, and is not discoverable in Milgram’s experiments. Why did some people refuse when others didn’t? Yes, we are inclined to comply – easy life, fear of group disapproval, reprisals, wanting to be in with the top guys – but what is it about the 35 per cent of refusers that made them eventually able to refuse? It was really only half an experiment, and the less useful half.

Milgram was a whiz at devising sexy experiments, but barely interested in any theoretical basis for them. They all have the same instant attractiveness of style, and then an underlying emptiness. He invented one experiment to test the idea that later became the basis of John Guare’s play Six Degrees of Separation, getting students to try to make contact with someone a world away by asking only one close friend for a further contact until the designated person was reached. It turned out that generally it required a maximum of 12 contacts to get to anyone. Interesting, certainly, and a fine idea to pick up and play with as Guare did, but Milgram was not much inclined to tease meaning out of his findings. Perhaps he lost interest after the active part of devising and carrying out the experiment was over, or perhaps he realised that without a theory to test, experiments are little more than expensive though entertaining anecdotes. He also invented the ‘lost letter’ technique of supposedly testing local social and political feeling by dropping hundreds of stamped letters addressed, for example, to white racist and radical black organisations (in reality, PO boxes set up by the experimenters), and made the discovery that fewer letters were picked up and kindly posted to the racist addresses in black areas than letters addressed to the Panthers, and vice versa, of course, in white communities. The findings of these experiments were recorded but they hardly give very deep or valuable information; less, in the case of the lost letter technique, I imagine, than the crudest of opinion polls.

Milgram’s study of obedience had a very mixed reception among his colleagues, not just because of its poor theoretical underpinning, and the fact that it was written up in glossy monthlies and popular weeklies rather than by Milgram in a professional journal, but because the experiment itself was thought to be unethical. Putting people under such extreme stress, even though they were told at the end that they had hurt no one, couldn’t be done today: academic ethical standards committees would refuse permission for funding. These days, however, nothing prevents similar ‘experiments’ (Big Brother, the reworking of the Stanford Prison Experiment, Castaway & Co) being carried out repeatedly for our fascination and entertainment on reality TV shows, and I wonder if that doesn’t tell us something about the nature of the original experiments. The public, however, read newspaper reports of the obedience experiments in the mid-1960s and bought Milgram’s 1974 book in industrial quantities. It seemed to be addressing important problems.

The search for the illumination of dark truths was rampant in the middle years of the 20th century, those post-Holocaust, Cold War, Vietnam years, before the Reagan/ Thatcher era. We read testimony of the concentration camps, and then Colin Turnbull’s study of the Ik, which proved that natural man is a complete shit (or, later, that natural man is a complete shit when unnatural man makes him so), was dramatised by Peter Brook, as was Oliver Sacks’s evidence for I’m not sure what in The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Napoleon Chagnon’s study of the Yanomamo tribe flew around the world as further evidence that humanity had none. We read Foucault, who proposed that we were all subject to an authority so nebulous as to be undefeatable. Earlier, in the 1960s, even Shakespeare got in on the act with Jan Kott’s Shakespeare Our Contemporary: the hopeless anti-heroics of Hamlet and the Nietzschean Iago were the very stuff that man was made on. We sucked in the awful tales of human beings and their fathomless vileness like babies on a truth tit. It’s funny that the postwar children have come to be regarded as a formlessly liberal generation when, as I recall, one of the main projects was to confront the dark side of humankind in order to learn how it might be neutralised. We might well have been guilty of thinking too shallowly, of gulping our facts and developing a taste for the bitter; but happy-go-lucky, laissez-faire and carefree is not how I remember it. After the Holocaust, man’s capacity for cruelty no longer seemed to be something to do with the remote past and its lack of indoor lavatory facilities or comprehensive schools, but was what our own parents were capable of doing. And if our own parents, then with the added blast of the newly discovered structure of the double helix that wove our parents into our every cell, why not us?

It didn’t seem possible (surely, no one thinks of themselves as being rotten?), but the banality of evil, or at any rate the quotidian nature of mercilessness, was there in front of our eyes, and the postwar generation of social scientists were intent on devising ways to prove it. We marched against nuclear weapons not just because of their moral poverty, but also because the more we found out about what humanity was capable of, the less we could be deceived by the notion that safety lay in the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. It seemed like a good idea to know the awful truth about ourselves, although nowadays I’m not sure that just knowing helps much. We were, if ever there was one, the generation which believed that to know thyself was to be in a position to change. We must have botched the first task, because we’ve certainly bungled the second.

I suspect, however, that we failed to notice a missing term in the proposition. Between knowing ourselves and change, lay the chasm of how change might come about. An ill-digested Freudianism suggested that only awareness was necessary for the great catharsis. Bring the dark out into the light, show what is hidden, and all will be well. You have to become aware of what you (that is, we) are like and then, somehow, you (that is, we) will be different. Thinking of this kind was the problem with the obedience experiment. Milgram set out with the echoes of Nuremberg and the almost contemporary Eichmann trial in his mind: perhaps it wasn’t just Germans who did what they were told. But having discovered that Americans, too, valued obedience to authority, that indeed we are all inclined to do what we are told, there was as ever no automatic bridge between knowing and changing. We must learn from this, Milgram said; we all said. But no one said how we were supposed to learn from it. It seemed it should have been obvious.

Plainly, it wasn’t. In spite of the atrocities by American soldiers in Vietnam, the French in Algeria, the British in Northern Ireland, this very year, politicians and public alike in the US and the UK declared themselves baffled, disbelieving and amazed that American and British soldiers could torture and humiliate Iraqi prisoners. They meant, usually, American and British soldiers. Not even the elementary lesson Milgram had to teach has been absorbed. It is still thought that bad guys do bad things and good guys (that’s us) don’t do bad things. That’s how you tell the difference. Then it turned out, quite recently, that telling the difference was a very big problem. For politicians (criminally self-interested or criminally sincere) to declare our natural goodness and their natural badness is one thing, but that anyone believes there is an inherently moral distinction which can be defined geographically or racially means people just haven’t been paying attention to what the 20th century – of which the Milgram study was little more than a reiteration and foreshadowing – made hideously clear. Tell people to go to war, and mostly they will. Tell them to piss on prisoners, and mostly they will. Tell them to cover up lies, and mostly they will. Authority is government, the media, the business sector, the priestly men and women in white coats or mitres. We are trained up in the structure of the family, in school, in work. Most people do what they are told. Apparently, a majority of people in this country did not want to join the US in making war on Iraq. This country joined the US in its catastrophic adventure nevertheless. The dissenters marched and argued and put posters up in their windows, but . . . Great passions were aroused, and yet . . . For the past eighteen months, the Independent newspaper has been producing astonishing front pages to make you weep, still . . . It all happened, and goes on. It could be inertia, or a sense of helplessness, or it could be that our fear of the consequences of disobedience holds sway over our judgment. It looks as if in every generation there is moral panic and a perception (or hallucination of the horror to come) of the next generation as having lost its predisposition to be obedient. Civilisation depends on most of us doing what we are told most of the time. Real civilisation, however, depends on Milgram’s 35 per cent who eventually get round to thinking for themselves.

But that, too, is a lazy, sentimental attitude. The 65/35 per cent split between the compliant and the resistant is just another version of good and bad, and leaves us essentially ignorant and free to declare our particular righteousness. Bush can take Milgram’s division to signify Americans and Terrorists; bin Laden can use it to denounce the evil West to the Followers of Allah; Hitler to set Germans against Jews; Zionists to divide Jews from Palestinians. And Milgram is no help at all.