Monday, 30 May 2011

Avoiding awkwardness, Stanley Milgram's obedience experiment in perspective, part two

The Milgram experiment (see part one of this article, below) came up with findings that no-one predicted or wanted to face. Ordinary people, when instructed to do so, were quite willing to give excruciatingly painful, possibly lethal, electric shocks to strangers.

The book Milgram wrote about the experiment, Obedience to Authority, was an attempt to explain these findings. He showed, convincingly I think, that one explanation – that the experiment enabled a repressed pleasure in inflicting pain to come to the surface – did not make sense.

But the alternative, the only explanation left, was no less disturbing. On reflection it was probably more so. Most people weren’t well-camouflaged sadists. But they were willing to be transformed into instruments in the hands of others. They could easily commit destructive acts at the behest of a “legitimate authority”. And in doing so lost all sense of responsibility, and felt no guilt.

But there was a chink of light. Although most did what they were told, around a third of people did not. They defied authority and refused to deliver electric shocks.

You can see their disobedience enacted in this series of films of the original experiment:

The conclusion Milgram came to through observing hundreds of people was that while obedience was straight-forward (although unpleasant), disobedience was hard. It involved transforming the feeling that something was wrong, first into dissent, and then into action.

“The psychic cost was considerable” writes Milgram. The price of disobedience was a gnawing sense of faithlessness. Subjects who disobeyed were troubled that they had “disrupted the social order”.

Milgram took pains to list the different stages leading to disobedience – strain, inner doubt, externalisation of doubt, dissent and finally action. Because bringing something out into the open, understanding it, makes it easier to perform.

The Left, anti-capitalism, depends upon the spreading of disobedience. By definition, it involves disrupting the social order. Understanding why disrupting the social order is hard, the deep, psychological pull of conservatism, is essential.

The basic Milgram experiment underwent several variations. But the most effective change in bringing about disobedience was quite simple – other people disobeying.

Two actors, posing as other subjects to shock the victim, were introduced. They refused to continue when told to give electric shocks to the learner when he gave a wrong answer.

No variation was so effective in getting the real subject to disobey the experimenter. Under this condition of peer rebellion, only 10 per cent of subjects went on to deliver the highest electric shock. In the basic experiment, 63 per cent of subjects did.

Part of the reason was ideological. “The peers instil in the subject the idea of defying the experimenter,” says Milgram. “It may not have occurred to some subjects as a possibility.”

With peer rebellion comes the acceptance of rebellion as natural, as something valid because other people are doing it. There is, in a way, a battle between obedience and conformity. Between doing what you are told and doing what other people are doing.

Strange as it may sound, conformity is a significant element in disobedience.

But most subjects did not have option of joining in a mini-rebellion. In the basic experiment, they were isolated and thus more easily turned into instruments of authority.

Becoming an instrument was to be transformed into an amoral state, where the pangs of conscience didn’t affect behaviour. But, ironically, what kept people in that state, (what Milgram calls the agentic state) what stopped people disobeying, were feelings and moral reactions.

Rebellion means disrupting the social order, in a minor way, and, in order to avoid that embarrassing situation, most people went on giving electric shocks.

The wish to avoid awkwardness was so strong that, in many cases, it proved stronger than the feeling that it was wrong to give possibly lethal electric shocks to another person.

Confronting, exposing that awkwardness would mean putting the authority-figure, in this case the experimenter, in a difficult situation, completely undermining him. A great many obedient subjects recoiled at doing that.

“It is a curious thing that a measure of compassion on the part of the subject, an unwillingness to ‘hurt’ the experimenter’s feelings, are part of those binding forces inhibiting disobedience,” says Milgram.

No debate occurred about what was happening, no weighing up of the ethics of what was being proposed. 

“Obedience,” says Milgram “does not take the form of a dramatic confrontation of opposed wills or philosophies but is embedded in a larger atmosphere where social relationships, career aspirations and technical routines set the dominant tone.”

In everyday life hierarchical institutions – companies, bureaucratic agencies – are always protected by a human shield. In order to change or rebel against institutional behaviour, individuals must confront and make life difficult for other people working in that hierarchy. Often people who, quite legitimately, are not responsible for the results of institutional behaviour. This human shield is a great weapon in maintaining the status quo.

What is exploited is a common desire to avoid conflict. But conflict is absolutely essential if progress is to be made. It has to happen.

There is an ongoing contest between the efforts of institutions to submerge conflict in “social relationships, career aspirations and technical routines” and the desire of revolutionary movements to bring that hidden conflict out into the open, and to depersonalise it.

One of the great exponents of bringing deliberately hidden conflict into the fresh air was the American community organiser, Saul Alinsky.

You can hear a radio interview with Alinsky, who died in 1972, here:

Alinsky consciously rejected the idea that the main point of life was “being liked and not offending others”. 
He spoke approvingly of wielding power and of engaging in conflict. “Conflict is the essential core of a free and open society,” he said.

There were limitations in what Alinsky was trying to do. His aim was to create “mass power organizations” to confront corporations, governments and public agencies. He was very effective at wringing concessions from institutions like these, but didn’t want to go further. It was as if life should be a never-ending conflict. He deliberately eschewed, wrongly, the idea of gaining economic power within corporations.

But he cut through the superficial politeness that obscures the real conflict underneath. He refused, as he said, “to detour round reality”.

He also understood that people, if they are unorganised, are at the mercy of hierarchical institutions that are remorseless in their pursuit of their aims. He wanted to even up the scales.

Alinsky’s progeny like the English group London Citizens, are equally convinced that without popular political organisation, people will be the victims of powerful institutions. “Only an organised people can control organised money”, they say.

One lesson from Milgram’s experiment is that ordinary people unconsciously permit themselves to be used by institutions for malevolent ends. That what is really going on, the underlying power relations, remain obscured by a patina of politeness, etiquette and moral obligation.

But they can be woken up. At one point, Milgram likens their situation to dozing. But obedience, like sleep, can be disturbed.

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