Thursday, 19 May 2011

Willing Slaves: Stanley Milgram's obedience experiment in perspective. Part one

The Milgram experiment, described as “one of the most controversial experiments in history” was first carried out when John F Kennedy was US President. Milgram’s own book about the experiment, Obedience to Authority, was published before the end of the Vietnam War. Why delve into ancient history?

Partly because its findings about human nature are timeless. In 2009 a BBC recapitulation of the experiment came up with very similar results to those obtained in 1961. 

But, more importantly, the experiments reveal a fundamental misconception about why people behave as they do, a “seriously distorted view of the determinants of human action”, in Milgram’s words. This delusion has, if anything, become more acute.

The idea that we alone control our behaviour and that our personal wants and desires shape the world around us, is a fundamental axiom of everyday ideology. Though the clamour for ethical responsibility is intense, it is also pointless. As the Milgram experiment demonstrates, ordinary people can perform horrific acts precisely because they don’t feel responsible, and don’t control what they do.

The experiments also shed light on why people don’t disobey. It is something that the Left, which is predicated upon disobedience, has to understand if it ever to progress. What Milgram shows is that circumstances by themselves, no matter how terrible, don’t produce disobedience. In fact, some people would rather kill than disobey authority.

It is a dark, negative view of human nature, though Milgram would add, realistic. The Left, by contrast, is usually assumed to believe in human decency. But an understanding of Milgram’s findings leads to inescapably left-wing conclusions.

What did the infamous experiment involve? You can see a film of the BBC replication of the experiment here

Volunteers were recruited to take part in an experiment on learning. But this was just a cover-story. A real experiment was taking place but it was not about learning.

A learner, an actor, was strapped into an “electric chair”. In an adjacent room, the volunteers were sat in front of an electronic shock generating machine with 30 switches going from 15 to 450 volts. The switches were each labelled, going from “slight shock”, “moderate shock” all the way up to “extreme intensity shock”, and the last two just “xxx”. Actually the machine did not deliver any electric shocks though the volunteers believed that it did.

The volunteers were told to shock the learner every time he got an answer wrong. The shocks were to increase in intensity each time. It was prearranged that the learner would get most answers wrong.

The victim’s cries from being shocked were recorded on tape and played so that the volunteer could hear them. They progressed from grunts and groans, to exclamations like “I refuse to go on, “I can’t stand the pain” and an “agonised scream”. Then there was just an ominous silence.

If the volunteer protested, he was told to go by an “experimenter” in a lab coat.

When told about the experiment, the vast majority of people, including psychiatrists, expected people to disobey and refuse to go on. “These subjects see their reactions flowing from empathy, compassion and a sense of justice,” says Milgram. Even people who watched the experiment through one-way mirrors expected disobedience. Only a pathological fringe of sadists would go on shocking, it was thought.

But in most cases – around two-thirds in the basic experiment – the result was obedience. People went on giving electric shocks up to the highest level, even though, in many cases, they feared the victim was dead. When the experiment was replicated in different locations and countries, obedience was even higher. In Munich, for example, 85 per cent obeyed to the final shock on the generator. Empathy and compassion did not win out.

But the point of the experiment was not that most people are sadists just beneath the surface. If the experiment was tweaked so that volunteers were not ordered to shock, but merely told it was fine it they went on to the highest possible electric shock, they invariably didn’t. In fact, the vast majority stopped before the shocks were painful.

 In another variation, there were two experimenters who disagreed. One wanted to go on shocking, the other didn’t. The effect was to stop the experiment dead in its tracks. No-one took advantage of the conflict to give more electric shocks.

Palpably volunteers did not like what they were told to do. When ordered to go on shocking, they protested, they sweated, they shook, they even laughed hysterically at themselves. They were obviously experiencing great stress. But most went on obeying.

“It is the extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on command of an authority that constitutes the chief finding of the study,” writes Milgram, “and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.”

The book Milgram wrote about the experiment, Obedience to Authority, is full of references to atrocities committed in the Vietnam War and by Nazi Germany. But at one point, Milgram says that to focus just on what the Nazis did is to “miss the point entirely” of the experiments.

In fact, to focus on atrocities or the human propensity to inflict pain on others is to miss the point entirely. What the experiment demonstrates is not just that most people will obey malevolent authorities, but their willingness to obey authorities of any kind, of varying degrees of malevolence. Not just amoral scientists or Generals, but companies and governments.

And it is when Milgram tries to explain the willingness to obey that his book becomes really enlightening.

Milgram says that obedience works when people are in, what appears to be, a paradoxical state of mind. Obedience has to be willingly entered into, but the actions it entails are nothing to do with the personality of the person who carries them out. It is one of the findings of the experiment that motives were irrelevant. Cruel people did not deliver more electric shocks than kind people. Yet, at the same time, nobody put a gun to their head.

Willingness is vital because it creates a sense of moral obligation. “The psychological consequence of voluntary entry is that it creates a sense of commitment and obligation which will subsequently play a part in binding the subject to his role,” says Milgram.

This is why neoliberal thinkers are so intransigent, although completely wrong, on this point. To neoliberals, a person selling themselves on the labour market, is no different to a person selling any type of commodity. It is a voluntary process and so should not be interfered with.

So, to neoliberals, obedience in a job ought to, morally should, follow naturally because the contract has been “voluntarily” entered into. As Milgram says, if obedience is willing, compliance is “easily exacted”.

But if obedience is not willing, compliance depends on direct surveillance. If surveillance ends, obedience stops.

Under voluntary obedience, control comes from within the person. Therefore, there is an internalised basis for obedience, not just an external one.

That is why ideology, or as Milgram phrases it, “the definition of the situation”, is so important. “Control the manner in which a man interprets his world,” he says “and you have gone a long way toward controlling his behaviour.”

 Liberal capitalism was under greatest threat in the nineteenth century when the Left espoused the concept of “wage-slavery” the idea that when a person is compelled under pressure of need, to rent themselves to a company and give away all control over what they do, their position was similar to that of a chattel slave.

Then obedience was powerfully contested and had to be enforced. Now, obedience is, to a large extent, voluntary and the values of liberal capitalism are internalised. We are, as the title of a recent book put it, “willing slaves” 

In the Milgram experiment, the participants quite willingly gave the victim what they believed were excruciatingly painful, possibly fatal, electric shocks. Yet what they did had no relation to what they themselves wanted to do. They voluntarily allowed someone else to dictate what they did.

As Milgram says, “It is the essence of obedience that the action carried out does not correspond to the motives of the actor but is initiated in the motive system of those higher up in the social hierarchy.”

Or as he puts it elsewhere, in hierarchical institutions, “relationship overwhelms content”. When a person merges their unique personality into an organisation, they become something else, a mere vessel, not an autonomous person.

This is remarkably similar to Noam Chomsky’s distinction between people who are moral agents (for good or ill) and “structures of power” that are basically amoral. But this distinction between people and institutions is hard to accept because, as Milgram says, society promotes the ideology that a person’s actions stem from their character. Bad outcomes are the result of bad people.

In the fifty years that have elapsed since the Milgram experiment was first conducted, the ideology of personal responsibility has increased in intensity. It has become an important foundation of the neoliberal ideology now dominant in the UK and US.

As the UK free market think tank, The Institute of Economic Affairs, which played a huge part in intellectually creating Thatcherism, said as the neoliberal revolution was just beginning, "The 'economic system' has no impulse of its own apart from the personal impulses of the individuuals who comprise it." The endless tail-chasing of attributing blame only serves to obscure the problem of the absence of ethical responsibility.

“We” has become the most overused pronoun of all. We are responsible for global poverty, we cause global warming. But “we” aren’t responsible for anything, because “we” don’t exist.

But the effort to make structurally amoral institutions, such as corporations, moral, is not only wrong-headed but malignant because it takes energy and attention from the proper task – institutional change

As Mark Fisher asks in his book Capitalist Realism: “Does anyone really think, for instance, that things would improve if we replaced the whole managerial and banking class with a whole new set of (‘better’) people? Surely, on the contrary, it is evident that the vices are engendered by the structure, and that while the structure remains, all the vices will reproduce themselves.”

But, as Milgram says in Obedience to Authority, for a person to feel responsible for his actions, “he must sense that the behaviour has flowed from ‘the self’. In the situation we have studied, subjects have precisely the opposite view of their actions.”

So far we have only examined the behaviour of those who obeyed authority. But a sizeable minority – around one third of volunteers - defied the instruction to shock the victim and disobeyed.

As we shall see, defiance was no simple matter. But there were conditions that disobedience easier. In Part Two we will consider these.

In Milgram’s words, “The individual is weak in his solitary opposition to authority but the group is strong … this is a lesson that every revolutionary group learns.”

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