"Distrust of authority should be the first civic duty." - Norman Douglas
I think about random stuff. Sometimes I wake up in the morning, and my mind wanders through a train of Eighties’ children shows, or the inventions of Nicola Tesla, or the evolution of fruit trees, or the different types of buskers. Sometimes, something particular sets it off – a commercial on the radio, or some casual reference in conversation. Other times it seems to just happen, with no conscious kickoff point.
The other day, for no particular reason, my brain took a right turn into social experiments. I rifled through memories of the different “What would you do” set-ups I’d seen - actors simulating racist encounters or domestic violence or a dozen other uncomfortable scenarios, just to see how (or if) onlookers will react. I thought about all the different studies I’d seen or read about, and what they revealed about us. And this line of thinking, inevitably, led me to the granddaddy of social experiments.
Read on . . .
"Most scientists will get serious media exposure about twice in their entire career. And they'll get that because they've actually done an experiment that was interesting." - Aubrey de Grey
Dr Stanley Milgram was a Harvard-educated psychologist who taught both at Yale and, later, his alma mater. In the late 60’s, he made a splash with his “Small World Experiment” – the genesis of the “six degrees of separation” idea. He also originated the “familiar stranger” concept, which still impacts research on social networks to this day. But it was his first major experiment, conducted when he was still an assistant professor at Yale, for which he would be most widely remembered.
The set of psychological tests officially called the “Obedience to Authority Experiment” – but which are now referred to almost exclusively as simply “the Milgram experiment”- began in July of 1961. That was three months after the start of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann’s trial, and not by coincidence. Revelations of Nazi atrocities had stirred up some tough questions in society: how could so many Germans go along with the Holocaust? How could so much have been done under the rubric of “just following orders”? Milgram decided to find the answers.
"Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn." - Benjamin Franklin
Volunteers were recruited through a series of newspaper ads. They were offered $4 an hour (1961, remember). They were told they were taking part in an experiment about memory. Specifically, the experimenter was studying whether learning and memory performance could be improved by punishment.
The volunteers, taken in pairs, were each assigned a role as either a Teacher or a Learner. The Learners were required to memorize a number of word pairs (“Blue-Hammer”, for example). Then the Learner was set in a separate room, strapped into a chair. The Teacher – back in the room with the experimenter – would read out the first word of a pair, along with four possible answers for the second. The Learner had to press one of four switches indicating which one was the right word to complete the pair.
“Shock! Watch the monkey get hurt.” – Peter Gabriel, “Shock the Monkey”
If the Learner chose wrong – or if he didn’t answer at all, the Teacher would push one of a row of buttons in front of him, delivering an electric shock to the Learner. The first button delivered a 15-volt shock. Each button going across the row delivered an incrementally larger voltage, all the way up to 450 volts. Each time the Learner missed an answer, the Teacher moved to the next button, steadily increasing the voltage (at 450, the Teacher was told to repeat the max voltage for each wrong answer).
Even if the Learner asked to stop – even if he stopped responding - the Teacher was instructed to continue asking the questions and delivering the shocks. The experiment would only end if the Learner completely refused to continue or after he had maxed out the voltage and delivered the 450 volt shock three times.
"I often say in my speeches, I say, 'It's rare in life that you get a controlled scientific experiment.' 'Cause you can't do controlled scientific experiments with real people, normally." - Jerrold Nadler
But the experiment – that description of it, at least – was fake. There were no shocks delivered. There were also no Learners. Only the Teacher was a volunteer – the “Learner” was a plant. When the Teacher asked his questions, the responses he got back were prerecorded. The answer from the Learner was always the wrong answer, and each response was keyed to the supposed voltage being delivered.
For example, at a certain voltage, the Learner started complaining about the pain. At a higher voltage, he complained about his heart and demanded to be released, objections which became more desperate and frenzied as the voltages increased. Finally, the responses stopped completely. Each time the Teacher hesitated or objected, the experimenter overseeing the test would bid him to go on with one of four predetermined “prods”, in ascending order:
1. Please continue.
2. The experiment requires that you continue.
3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
4. You have no other choice, you must go on.
There is a documentary created by Milgram himself, called Obedience, which shows the experiment. It can be seen in its entirety online, and it is something to watch. Ordinary men, from all walks of life, believing they were delivering shock after shock to another person. It’ll give you chills.
"Obedience brings peace in decision making." - James E. Faust
The results of Milgram were stunning – almost two-thirds of the Teachers continued to the maximum voltage, albeit with objections and obvious distress. In a later variation, the Teacher got instructions over a phone rather than from an authority figure in the same room, which decreased compliance. Moving the experiment from Yale’s august campus to an anonymous office in Bridgeport, Connecticut also reduced compliance, but only slightly. Putting the Teacher and Learner in the same room also caused more Teachers to stop the shocks – but even in a later version in which the “Learner” had to hold his hand on a metal plate to receive the shock and the Teacher was to hold his arm in place
if he refused, some thirty percent
still went all the way to the end.
Milgram tried other variations to test the effect of conformity. Additional actors came in as “extra Teachers”. Whenever they refused to continue with the shocks, the real Teacher was more likely to do so as well. When they continued, so did he. In a variation where only the actors delivered the “shocks” and the real volunteer performed as an assistant (taking notes, etc), some 90% continued to the end.
In no version of the experiment, it should be noted, did any volunteer try to actually stop the test – the ones that didn’t continue to the end simply refused to take any further part in it themselves.
"Few men desire liberty; most men wish only for a just master." - Sallust
The experiment was repeated in Australia in the early 70’s, and variations were performed around the world. It was recreated for television by British mentalist Derren Brown in 2006, and on an episode of the Discovery Channel show "Curiosity" in 2011. In all these recreations, the 60-65% compliance number for the base experiment has never changed.
We think of the people who commit atrocities, who follow orders that lead to torture or injustice or even genocide as somehow alien, an aberration of humanity. They are not. The Milgram experiment, playing out the same every time and place it's been tried, teaches us different. The people that took part were normal men (and, in later variations, women) from all walks of life and all education levels. They were the stereotypical Normal People that surround you every day.
"Cruelty is a part of nature, at least of human nature, but it is the one thing that seems unnatural to us." - Robinson Jeffers
It is tempting for us each to think we’re different. I
wouldn’t push the next button. I’d stop the test. I’d go loose the straps. I’d save the victims, and fight the law, and cast down the devil from his throne.
I want to think that. So do you. The overwhelming odds are that we’re both wrong.
It’s tempting to think that the Milgram results were a product of Cold War conformity and an age when people still put faith in government, before the Watergate Scandal and the quagmire of Vietnam. The 2006 and 2011 recreations put lie to that idea. If it were redone today, with people who knew nothing of the experiment’s history, experience says the results would be the same.
Whatever causes almost two-thirds of us to push the next button, and the next, and the next – it’s not some foreign influence or agent. It’s not some defect of the individual, or some product of our country or our era. It’s who we are. To a disturbing degree, and even when we hear the cries of suffering we (as far as we know) are causing, we do what we’re told.
"It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll; I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul." - William Ernest Henley
But I still believe in free will, and with that comes the hope that I, or you, or that other guy over there, would all say no. I do not believe in the Fallen State of Man, but that we are shards of Divinity. And with that belief comes irrational optimism.
If Milgram is done five times or five hundred, I will still believe it can be different the next time, because I will always believe we can be. I will always believe people are basically good from birth, and all our errors are taught. And that faith will withstand a hundred thousand proofs that it’s wrong on the strength of that one example that proves it right.
So go give us all one today.