[Paleopsych] TLS: (Milgram) Keep pulling the lever

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Mon Mar 28 00:32:49 UTC 2005

Keep pulling the lever

    John Darley
    10 December 2004
    THE MAN WHO SHOCKED THE WORLD. The life and legacy of Stanley Milgram.
    By Thomas Blass. 392pp. Boulder, CO: Perseus. $26; distributed in the
    UK by Marston Book Services. £19.99. 0 7382 0399 8

    In 1960, in a post-Holocaust milieu in which it was often asked how
    seemingly normal people could have engaged in genocidal acts, the
    young psychologist Stanley Milgram decided to choose the topic of
    "obedience to authority" for his next research project. The result of
    this decision, "the obedience studies", remains the most famous series
    of experiments in social psychology, experiments which appeared to
    demonstrate people's shockingly counter-intuitive willingness to
    inflict serious harm on an innocent other, when ordered to do so by a
    perceived "authority".

    Milgram grew up in one world, but found his preferred home in a quite
    different one. Born in the Bronx in 1933 to Jewish immigrant parents,
    his father a baker, he was a strikingly clever boy who in 1950 went to
    Queen's College, one of the excellent, then free, universities of the
    City University of New York system.

    Fortuitously, a dean, impressed by Milgram's senior seminar
    performance, suggested that Milgram consider graduate work in the
    Department of Social Relations at Harvard University. The Department,
    unique to Harvard, combined Sociology, Social Psychology, Social
    Anthropology and Clinical Psychology: it essentially was the study of
    human nature. By cramming in several psychology courses during the
    summer, and doing brilliantly in them, Milgram eventually was granted
    admission to the Department. He did well, and soon earned the regard
    of three important and influential psychologists: Gordon Allport,
    Jerome Bruner and Roger Brown. Allport was a distinguished social and
    personality psychologist, Brown an extremely literate younger social
    psychologist who had captured the respect of the entire field, and
    Bruner was just on the verge of bringing cognitive psychology into
    being. Continuing his charmed career, Milgram soon became a teaching
    assistant for a visiting professor, Solomon Asch, the author of the
    famous conformity experiments. For his thesis, Milgram applied himself
    to a cross-cultural version of the conformity experiments. In 1960
    Milgram accepted an assistant professorship at Yale, and thought
    strategically about what sort of research he might undertake. Looking
    for a topic that would be both important and allow him to adopt
    methods he used in his thesis, he arrived at the idea of the obedience

    This choice was brilliant and original but overdetermined;
    overdetermined by the brute presence of the Holocaust and also, as
    Milgram later acknowledged, because his research paradigm "gave
    scientific expression to a more general concern about authority, a
    concern forced upon members of my generation, in particular upon Jews
    such as myself, by the atrocities of World War Two". But the first
    studies went well and remarkably fast; essentially completed by May
    1962, they were published in scientific journals between 1963 and

    In order to conduct his experiment, Milgram had first to recruit
    members of the general public. He found volunteers among the citizens
    of New Haven who, on arrival at his laboratory, drew tickets from a
    hat to discover whether they would be the "teacher" or the "learner".
    The learner was to memorize a series of word pairs and the teacher was
    to administer an electric shock when the pupil failed to get them
    right; the more mistakes the learner made, the more intense the shocks
    became. Or this is how it appeared to the "teacher". The "learner" was
    actually an actor who had been primed to make prearranged errors.
    These were to be so frequent and plentiful that the "teacher" would be
    obliged to increase the voltage beyond a level labelled dangerous.
    (The "learner", of course, received only a painless signal.) If the
    "teacher" hesitated to administer the increasingly fierce shocks, the
    professional supervisor of the experiment would urge him or her to

    The overarching discovery of the series was that a majority of
    "ordinary" people seemed to be prepared to inflict agonizing
    punishment on others and would continue to do so after their victim
    had implored them to stop, in some cases even explaining that he had a
    serious heart condition. The "teachers", however, were not insensitive
    to the pain that they were causing. In fact, as they continued to
    increase the voltage, they exhibited considerable reluctance to do so.
    But when encouraged by brief remarks from their supervisor, such as
    "The experiment requires you to continue", they persisted, often until
    the apparatus that they had been given had reached the limits of its

    Early in his experimental work, Milgram sent this description of his
    results to an official of the National Science Foundation, who had
    funded his experiments:

    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 (Nazi) 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.

    Of course, the fact that a cross section of ordinary people were
    obviously not moral imbeciles and showed clear signs of distress, or
    pangs of conscience, as they administered the shocks, should have told
    Milgram that his description was incomplete and incorrect. At times he
    did seem to recognize that it was, to say the least, considerable
    overstatement. And to his credit there are numerous points in his
    lectures at which he draws more limited conclusions - and seems less
    certain of the relation of the results of his experiments to torturers
    and death-camp guards.

    Unfortunately, though, the world at large latched on to the views
    contained in the above quotation.

    As Milgram came to realize and to report in his talks on the obedience
    phenomenon, the implications of his results take us in a subtly but
    importantly different direction. They are a key factor in the
    development of the currently dominant "situational" theory of the
    causes of human behaviour. "Situationalism" holds that the major
    determinant of a person's actions is construction and internal
    representation of the meaning of the situation. This statement seems
    obvious, but in fact it disagrees with almost everyone's idea of how
    people's behaviour is determined. Most people, at least in Western
    cultures, believe that their actions flow from their personal
    characteristics, conceptualized as traits.

    Most people are sure that they themselves would never administer
    increasingly painful electric shocks to another. When Milgram
    described his experiment to other professionals, they unanimously
    predicted that the shock escalation would quickly cease. Most people
    were kind and decent rather than malevolent and sadistic. But
    Milgram's experiments demonstrated that the majority would in fact
    give the escalating shocks, continuing to the highest levels that the
    apparatus allowed them. So Milgram was wrong to suggest that his
    subjects were morally malevolent. Similarly people are sure that they
    would not conform if they heard others give an obviously factually
    incorrect answer about a physical reality such as the length of a
    line. Why would they not conform? Because they possessed the trait of
    independence. But Asch's live experiments had demonstrated that they
    would conform. In an experiment that I did with Bibb Latane,
    colleagues were sure that no sane person would stay in a room as it
    filled with acrid smoke. But if two others stayed there, our research
    subject also stayed.

    In each of these experiments, the fine grain of the situations in
    which the respondents found themselves determined their responses.
    Asch developed an experimental trick, new then, though much used
    since. He recruited students, who would turn up for an experiment and
    be perceived by the sole real student as simply other subjects. In
    fact, they had been coached by the experimenter to perform a
    prearranged act. In this case, the act was to report a sequence of
    wrong but unanimous judgements about which line matched the test line
    in length.

    Picture, then, what faced the naive subject. Half a dozen of these
    others, whom the subject perceived to be equally naive subjects, one
    by one all gave an obviously false answer to a simple perceptual
    question, which involved the length of a line that they could all see.
    The naive subject often conformed. Surrounded by the other apparent
    subjects who all reported an obvious false match to the length of the
    line, he or she simply could not think why it was that none of them
    could see the obviously correct answer, so, prudently, they decided
    not to deviate from the consensus until they could understand what the
    consequences might be. A slight change in the interpersonal situation
    made a huge change in the subjects' behaviour.

    When provided with one other person who gave the correct answer and
    did not receive punishment for his deviance, they too felt free to
    give the correct answer. In the case of the smoke-filled room, the
    subject interpreted a very critical aspect of the situation, the lack
    of response from her companions, as telling him that somehow the smoke
    did not signal danger to anyone in the room. If there was no one else
    in the room, so that no one was providing cues as to the meaning of
    the smoke, the subject quickly left and reported the smoke. In the
    Milgram experiments, the expertise attributed to the ever-present
    experimenter, who urged the continuation of the administration of the
    shocks, caused the subjects to think that either it could not be true
    that the learner would really be harmed (there was no doubt that he
    was being hurt, but the experiment was about the use of punishment to
    produce learning) or that the experimenter understood that the
    responsibility for harm was entirely his.

    Again, a slight change in the experimental situation made a huge
    difference in subjects' behaviour. In one case Milgram arranged for
    the expert experimenter to be called away. The experimenter left,
    asking that one of the non- experts should go on with the experiment.
    Now, when the learner raised his protests, and the substitute
    experimenter ordered his subjects to continue giving the escalating
    series of shocks, the vast majority of them refused. In five
    instances, when the substitute experimenter stepped to the controls
    "to administer the shocks myself", the subject prepared to physically
    restrain him. To sum up the message of these studies, small clues that
    provide cues to "what is going on" in the situation make large
    differences in the respondents' interpretations of the situation and
    therefore to their actions.

    In 1963, a major change occurred in Milgram's life. After his third
    year at Yale ended, he was offered a post at Harvard, which he
    accepted, returning to where he hoped to gain tenure. It also is
    likely that one of his earlier mentors, Allport, encouraged him in
    this belief.

    This, however, did not occur. Not enough support came from the
    department faculty to carry the case forward to the administration.
    The reasons, although Thomas Blass, in The Man Who Shocked the World,
    makes clear that Milgram had considerable support in the Department,
    seem to be that his obedience research remained controversial, was
    thought by some to be unethical, and received widespread publicity
    which may have been interpreted as something Milgram himself sought.

    And, too, he was prickly and did not tolerate fools gladly. Also, it
    was not clear what his next project would be; whether he "had any good
    ideas left in him". Blass conveys just how shattered, humiliated and
    betrayed he felt.

    Milgram repaired to the City University of New York with a full
    professorship and con- tinued to provide thoughtful, offbeat,
    sometimes highly original research. His eye for what seemingly
    ordinary behaviour might reveal - the habits of travellers on the
    subway, for example - remained keen. It was Milgram who began the
    research which led psychologists to believe that "six degrees of
    separation", only six intermediaries, are required to connect any two
    people on the planet.

    Milgram died of heart failure at sixty-one, leaving us with the
    knowledge that evil is not inherent in all of us, yet showing us how
    evil can be performed by essentially ordinary people.

    Milgram, himself, was a far from ordinary scientist. And Thomas Blass
    is also a far from run-of-the-mill biographer; as a child in Hungary
    he barely escaped the Holocaust, and his intense fascination with the
    problems of human nature that it revealed drew him to Milgram's
    papers, to interview those who knew him and eventually to produce this
    excellent biography.

More information about the paleopsych mailing list