Stanley Milgram's book Obedience to Authority is experiments directed at understanding the problem of the Nazis, starting on page 5 with Adolf Eichmann and the death camps. We can't avoid it. But we are here to apply his work to a much lesser evil—Republicans—and to ourselves.
Nazis in the concentration and death camps, among others, said
I was just following orders.Adolf Eichmann, architect of the entire Final Solution against Jews, Gypsies, Communists, gays, and many others, claimed
I was never an anti-Semite…My sensitive nature revolted at the sight of corpses and blood…I personally had nothing to do with this. My job was to observe and report on it.The Nuremburg Tribunal rejected those excuses. American military commanders also rejected the excuse from many Germans that they didn't know what was going on, and forced locals to tour nearby camps.
In the Milgram experiments, large numbers of people who said in advance that they would not harm others if ordered to do so gave up their personal consciences and went ahead and did it, excusing their behavior and ducking responsibility in many different ways. But by no means everybody. What would your excuses be? Or have you actually stood up to authority and made it stick?
This week we are going to examine the Yale experiments in obedience conducted by Stanley Milgram and their broad application to human affairs, and next week we will examine John Dean's application of the experimental results and the resulting theory to Republicans in Conservatives Without Conscience.
The Problem of Obedience
Obedience is one of the most important issues in human nature and society. Here are just a few seriously troubling examples.
18 “If a man has a stubborn, rebellious son who will not obey what his father or mother says, and even after they discipline him he still refuses to pay attention to them; 19 then his father and mother are to take hold of him and bring him out to the leaders of his town, at the gate of that place, 20 and say to the leaders of his town, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious, he doesn’t pay attention to us, lives wildly, gets drunk.’ 21 Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death; in this way you will put an end to such wickedness among you, and all Isra’el will hear about it and be afraid.Deuteronomy 21, Complete Jewish Bible translation
The greatest principle of all is that nobody, whether male or female, should be without a leader. Nor should the mind of anybody be habituated to letting him (or her) do anything at all on his (or her) own initiative–to his leader he shall direct his eye and follow him faithfully. And even in the smallest matter he should stand under leadership. For example, he should get up, or move, or wash, or take his meals...only if he has been told to do so. In a word, he should teach his soul, by long habit, never to dream of acting independently, and to become utterly incapable of it.Plato, Laws
You must fashion [the person], and fashion him in such a way that he simply cannot will otherwise than what you wish him to will.Fichte, Addresses to the German Nation
On the opposite side, many have excoriated Nazis as the ultimate evildoers, but Hannah Arendt's book Eichmann in Jerusalem proposed an opposite conclusion: Eichmann was not a sadistic monster but
an uninspired bureaucrat who simply sat at his desk and did his job.She coined the phrase the banality of evil in this book, which aroused great controversy at the time (1963) but which Milgram wholeheartedly supported.
There are great evildoers in history. But they are only able to do such great evil because they are enabled and supported by many millions who agree, and millions more who just go along. Most people think that they and those they know would not do that. Experiment shows that most people are very wrong.
The Yale studies showed that almost everybody who thinks they would resist an order to harm another person would in fact go ahead and do it under some circumstances, although a fair number would object along the way. And in fact almost everybody allows vast harm to vast multitudes without significant objection.
Yes, I know, you aren't pulling the trigger or doing the paperwork, but many millions suffer in the continuation of Jim Crow or injuries being inflicted on women, immigrants, workers, and so on. We are all complicit in it if we do not act effectively against it. Around the world many millions are dying, and it is generally considered impolite even to discuss the matter in any detail. The biggest exception is among those Republican factions that actually approve of oppression. The other main exception is those who stand up to authority and tradition together, who are well represented at dKos.
The Yale Experiments
There were several Yale experiments over a four-year period, of which 18 are reported in the book, and many other experiments afterwards by other researchers. The original studies would now be considered unethical to recreate exactly, due to the unanticipated psychological effects on subjects. However, recreations within current
Milgram arranged for a laboratory setting with two rooms. One contained a control panel and buttons marked with supposed electrical voltages from 15 to 450 volts in steps of 15, and with legends indicating the severity of the shocks from Mild to XXX. The other contained a chair with restraints and a supposed electrical connection for administering shocks, and an apparatus for responding to questions with one of four possible answers. One person, James McDonough, played the role of the learner, who can be considered the victim, the supposed experimental subject receiving the shocks, throughout, and the role of the experimenter in a lab coat giving orders was played by a high school biology teacher, John Williams.
Experimental subjects were recruited widely in the area around New Haven to get a mix of ages, levels of education, and occupations. They received instructions telling them that they were assisting in an experiment to test the effectiveness of punishment on learning. They would read a set of word pairs into a microphone, and then read sets of words that the learner would respond to. For every wrong answer, subjects were told to push a button to administer a shock, increasing by 15 volts each time up to 450 volts, at which point the experiment session would end. In fact, the learner always responded with the same sequence of answers up to a certain point, and then refused to give any further answers. Subjects were told to continue with the shocks even after that.
If a subject objected to continuing, or refused to continue, the supposed experiment would give a sequence of up to four prods to get them to go on, starting over after each shock given with each new objection.
- Please continue, or Please go on.
- The experiment requires that you continue.
- It is absolutely essential that you continue.
- You have no other choice, you must go on.
There were other prods to use in response to particular objections, such as an assurance that the shocks would be painful but not damaging. (In fact, ordinary household electricity at 110 volts can kill, but there were no shocks.) If the subject refused to continue after all prods were exhausted, the session was ended.
Milgram conducted many variations of the basic experiment, starting with the kind of feedback subjects got when administering shocks. When there was no feedback at all (Experiment 1), almost all subjects went straight through to 450 without question or objection. This was scientifically uninformative, so Milgram designed ways to increase resistance and sharpen the conflict within subjects to the point were significant refusal to participate appeared. When subjects could hear the learner pounding on the wall (Experiment 2), but nothing else, compliance was somewhat reduced, and there were some questions and objections, and some refusals to continue. When they could hear the learner complain, then shout, then scream, then fall silent as the voltage was supposedly increased, compliance fell further, to about two-thirds (Experiment 3), and objections and refusals increased, and so on with the learner in the same room, up to subjects pushing the learner's hand onto a plate to apply shocks (Experiment 4). But in no version of the experiment did complete compliance fall below 30%, even though no threats of any kind were made toward the subjects.
I cannot go through the rest of the evidence here, but I can give some of the highlights.
5 Move to basement lab, give learner a mild heart condition. No change in results.
6 New experimenter and learner with different personalities. No change in results.
7 Experimenter leaves after start, gives orders by telephone. Much more disobedience.
8 Women as subjects. More stress, but the same outcomes. No experiments were done with women as experimenters or learners.
9 Learner signs consent form only after demanding that the experiment be stopped if he says so. More objections, but no change in level of shocks given.
10 Experiment conducted in Bridgeport CT with no connection made to Yale. Slightly more resistance, but no significant drop in compliance.
11 Subjects choose shock levels. Only a few go to high levels, while some do not even go to the level where the learner expresses discomfort. So previous results are the results of authority, not inherent aggression.
12 Role reversal. Learner demands to go on with shocks, and experimenter says to stop. All subjects stop.
13 An ordinary man gives orders. The subject is one of three in the room, the other two being part of the experiment. He does not get any formal instructions on what shocks to give, but one of the others in the room (the bystander) suggests ramping up the shocks one step at a time. Compliance dropped by two-thirds, demonstrating the importance of perceived authority.
13a The bystander usurps the shock apparatus and systematically applies shocks all the way up the board. Many subjects fought with the former bystander or attempted to disable the electrical apparatus. Subjects who deferred to a scientist/experimenter completely apparently have no problem with confronting a co-worker.
14 Authority receives shocks with ordinary man commanding. The intended learner says that he is not willing to be shocked unless he sees someone else go through it first, and the experimenter volunteers to go first. At 150 volts he demands to be let out. Every subject broke off, with some discussion, at the first complaint of the learner, even though the person replaced demanded that the subject carry on to the end.
15 Two authorities in conflict, both experimenters in lab coats. One gives the usual instruction to continue, and the other orders the subject to stop at 150 volts, as soon as the learner objects verbally. All subjects stopped at that point or one step after, except for one who broke off sooner.
16 Two authorities in different positions, one as learner. There are two experimenters, who receive a planned call telling them that a subject has canceled his appointment. They flip a coin, and one becomes the learner. He demands to be released after a 150 volt shock, but the other experimenter orders the subject to continue to the end. Subjects either break off at that point or continue all the way through. Authority learners get shocked as much as ordinary-man learners.
17 Two peers rebel. Having social support for refusing to continue gave the highest rate of non-compliance of all of the experiments.
18 Peer administers shock. Subjects, feeling removed from direct responsibility, cooperate in going through to the end.
Understanding the Experiments
Milgram arranged for all subjects to be interviewed in detail after their sessions, and provided group discussion sessions run by Yale psychiatrists. It is worthwhile to read their accounts, specifically the excuses they give for their behavior, whether in following orders or in refusing to continue. Excuses include
- I promised to do the experiment, so I had to complete it.
- It's the responsibility of the experimenters.
- It's the learner/victim's fault for making mistakes.
- It would be rude to object or refuse to continue.
- I have to show that I am competent at doing the experiment.
- The experimenter will think badly of me if I object or refuse to continue.
- I need to pay attention to the experimenter, not the learner.
- If I break off now, I will be admitting that what I was doing was wrong.
- I always have to obey legitimate orders.
The reason for objecting or refusing to continue is the infliction of pain, and fear for the learner's safety. The experimental situation creates a strain between that motive and the various motives for obedience. In some people, the strain keeps growing, and they object more and more strongly, but continue on anyway. In others, the strain reaches the breaking point and they stop, which relieves most of the strain immediately. None of the subjects did anything to try to stop further experimentation.
Much of the rest of the book attempts to explain some of these results theoretically, in terms of cybernetic, psychoanalytic, and evolutionary models. The most important insight here is the radical shift that people undergo from making their own autonomous moral choices to relinquishing autonomy and morality to those in authority. However, this shift is not complete. Conflicts between orders and moral principles lead to increasing levels of stress in individuals, which may or may not result in non-compliance depending on many factors that are still net well understood. Also, it is essential to ask what the criteria might be for people to accept others as authorities worthy of obedience. It takes a lot of work to inculcate obedience, on the part of societies in general, and especially schools, churches, militaries, and political movements.
Another important insight is how little we understand ourselves, if we have no experience to go on, and simply make suppositions about how we would behave. Try to imagine for a moment being in a Nazi-ruled or Fascist-ruled country, or a severely Communist country, where oppression is enforced by torture and murder at the extremes, and by censorship, propaganda, and social surveillance in daily life. What would you do?
- Would you try to ignore everything and live an ordinary life, as so many did?
- Would you try to emigrate, as significant numbers did?
- Would you join in? What if you were drafted into the military as so many were?
- Would you risk your life by sheltering Jews, as very few did, and many got caught?
- Would you join a Resistance movement, as a significant minority did in some countries? That could be active sabotage and murder, such as we associate with the French Resistance, or just national non-cooperation, as in Denmark.
Now try to imagine being brought up by committed Nazis or Fascists or Communists. Could you have rejected the ideology and the oppressions and murders? How about science deniers? Would you have found and understood the evidence yourself?
You don't know. I don't know.
There is a great deal more research on obedience, far more than we can even glance at today. But I thought this, which popped up quite recently, was interesting enough to mention. We will get into obedience by dogs in considering Learned Helplessness, where it turns out that dogs can be taught not to be helpless.
For dog lovers, comparative psychologists Friederike Range and Zsófia Virányi have an unsettling conclusion. Many researchers think that as humans domesticated wolves, they selected for a cooperative nature, resulting in animals keen to pitch in on tasks with humans. But when the two scientists at the Messerli Research Institute at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna studied lab-raised dog and wolf packs, they found that wolves were the tolerant, cooperative ones. The dogs, in contrast, formed strict, linear dominance hierarchies that demand obedience from subordinates, Range explained last week at the Animal Behavior Society meeting at Princeton University. As wolves became dogs, she thinks, they were bred for the ability to follow orders and to be dependent on human masters.Disclosure: At Yale in 1963 I learned about the Milgram experiments from some of Milgram's colleagues in the psych department. The book did not come out until 1974.
We get to apply the Milgram results, among others, to Republicans next week, with John Dean's Conservatives Without Conscience. Dean wrote that book after Milgram invited him to speak at a conference, and after reading Obedience to Authority and other research on authority and obedience, especially the work of Robert Altemeyer. I should add some of his work to our reading list.
Clearly, the passive sort of obedience Milgram discusses is not enough to explain the overt aggression that we see from a variety of Republicans on a variety of issues, including attacking each other. Nor can it explain the level of delusion and hypocrisy seen among leaders and followers alike, nor the level of psychopathic indifference to others displayed by so many authoritarians.