Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Obedient Subjects? The disputed and misunderstood legacy of Stanley Milgram

 In 2019, I published a book called The Disobedient Society in which I argued that, contrary to our protestations of our personal freedom, obedience still plays a dominant role in our societies. Referring back to Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience experiments of the early 1960s – which he subsequently interpreted as demonstrating the ease with which we become “agents” for the wishes of authority figures – I highlighted that the very fact that we perceive our following of orders as voluntary, exemplified by the employment contract, serves to camouflage which is really going on.

Six decades on, controversy still swirls around what Milgram did or didn’t discover in New Haven in 1961. So I thought it would be useful to elaborate what I think of these controversies and how Milgram still informs the book’s central idea. In a very astute review of the book one writer, for example, asserts that Milgram’s findings, blighted by revelations of how participants were unduly pressured into going along the experimenter’s instructions, must now be considered mere metaphors for obedience.

Electric Dreams

To recap, the Milgram’s experiment (s) consisted of instructing participants to give electric shocks via a machine to a – usually hidden – stranger, with the proviso that they were told they could leave at any point. However, the shocks weren’t real. The machine went up to 450 volts, enough to conceivably kill the victim, but it was an elaborately designed fake – no-one was being shocked at all. The entire set-up was to ascertain how far participants would go ‘under orders’.

Milgram – through the experiment he oversaw – has been plausibly accused of haranguing some participants to obey and going on ‘shocking’ the victim. If participants hesitated or expressed doubts at any stage they were to be encouraged to continue with phrases like “the experiment requires that you continue” or “you have no other choice, you must go on”. However, these lines were supposed to be used only once – if the participant still refused to play ball, the experiment was halted and they were labelled “disobedient”.

However, recordings of some of the Milgram sessions suggest that the experimenter (not Milgram but an employee, an ‘agent’ of Milgram you might say) went further than he should have, continually pressing participants to continue, “railroading” them according to Gina Perry’s 2012 book Behind the Shock Machine.

Milgram has also been accused of not telling all participants afterwards that the shocks were fake and in one study of arranging for friends, rather than strangers, to play the roles of ‘teacher’ and ‘learner’.

However, it should also be borne in mind, that there wasn’t a single a Milgram experiment but 23 variations and the most frequent obedience rate was 60%.

I Don’t Believe You

The idea that Milgram’s results were invalid really rests on another conception – that many participants saw through the ruse, that they didn’t truly believe anyone was being shocked. Milgram always asserted that the vast majority of subjects were fully taken in by the elaborate deception but according to interviews conducted by the ‘learner’ (the actor playing the victim), immediately after the experiments, many obedient participants claimed that they didn’t believe anyone was being harmed.

So high obedience rates are not what they seem on the surface. What they really reveal, in this view, is a desire to go along with what the experiment demands. Obedient subjects feel safe in the knowledge that no-one is really being hurt from them playing along, so they do what they are told.

However, there are reasons to doubt this hypothesis (and not just based on Milgram’s post-hoc survey of participants). In one of Milgram’s variations (no 4) the actor playing the learner comes out from the other room where he was hidden in almost all of the other variations and sits next to the subject. The subject’s role here is to physically place – wearing heavy rubber gloves for protection – the learner’s hand on a metal plate apparently conducting electricity if he makes a mistake remembering the word-pairs (the experiments are presented as a way of discovering the effects of punishment on memory).

Common sense dictates that the entire ruse is most vulnerable to being seen through in this variation. The actor-learner has to do some serious and convincing acting, as opposed to, in most other variations, pressing play on a tape recorder at various intervals, broadcasting his pre-recorded screams. So if the disbelief hypothesis is correct, obedience rates should be high here – a sign that participants realise they are being deceived and do what is expected of them. Actually, they are very low – 30% – one of the lowest in the entire series of experiments.

Conversely, in another variation (Study no 13) where participants do not have to directly ‘shock’ the victim, but merely read out the word-pairs while a confederate of the experimenter flicks the switches on the shock machine, obedience rates are very high – in fact, at 92.5%, the highest in the series.

So when the subject was physically closest to the victim, directly inflicting pain, obedience rates were low but when the subject was furthest away from the victim, playing a secondary (though important) role, obedience was very high. These are the kind of results you might expect if most participants had no doubts the presented scenario was real or at least had limited scepticism.

More evidence that Milgram hit upon a genuine phenomenon, as opposed to merely ‘discovering’ a disturbing propensity he contrived to find, is given by the fact that replications of the obedience experiment in other countries recorded, with one notable exception, similar results.

Ethical Obedience

There was then a long gap when ‘Milgramesque’ experiments did not take place for ethical reasons. The reasons concerned the traumatic effect on participants. In several Milgram variations if subjects obediently continue ‘shocking’ all the way to the end they have good reason to believe that the now silent learner is dead or at least seriously injured.

Then in 2008 a California professor came up with the idea of the “obedience lite” experiment. A copy of Milgram’s shock generator was used but with only 10 switches going up to 150 volts. Milgram’s machine had 30 switches, with the highest being 450 volts. However, browsing Milgram’s results, Professor Jerry Burger of Santa Clara University found that the 150 volts was a common stopping point – “a point of no return”. If subjects went beyond the 150 volt mark they often continued all the way to the end.

So here was a way to conduct a Milgram-type experiment without inflicting trauma on participants. And it turned out Burger’s results were comparable with Milgram’s. 70 per cent of his participants were willing to go beyond the 150 volt level – with Milgram it had been 82.5.

Burger’s innovation has allowed a new generation of Milgramesque experiments to take place. For example, between 2014 and 2017 in Wroclaw, Poland, two researchers carried out what they assert is “the broadest program of empirical investigations of obedience since the times of Milgram’s studies”.

In total five studies were carried out using a replica of Milgram’s machine. As with Burger, the highest switch was normally the tenth (150 volts), though in one study subjects were allowed to go up to the 15th switch (225 volts).

The researchers, Dariusz Doliński and Tomasz Grzyb, are adamant their findings should not be compared with Milgram’s. The one obvious difference is that Milgram’s subjects were encouraged to press 30 switches but they stopped their experiments long before that. But there are others, such as who was recruited, the location, the life experiences of the subjects and the sternness of the experimenter.

However, they are also clear that their experiments show the enduring reality of obedience and the ease with which, given the right circumstances, ordinary people can be induced to obey. 85-90% of their participants (split equally between men and women by the way) exhibited “total obedience” – i.e. they went all the way to the 10th switch. In addition, the verbal prods – “the experiment requires that you continue”, etc., the same as with Milgram – rarely had to be used.

Secret Agents

In fact, the comparisons that can be made with Milgram are fascinating. Despite wide cultural differences and a gap of over five decades, the overwhelmingly dominant result – in both cases defying predictions – was obedience. Moreover, Doliński and Grzyb believe that Milgram’s original explanation for the behaviour of participants – that they enter what he termed an “agentic state” – is hard to refute.

Milgram defined the agentic state as a “social situation” in which a person is open to “regulation by a person of higher status. “In this condition”, he claimed, “the individual no longer views himself as responsible for his own actions but defines himself as an instrument  for carrying out the wishes of others”.

Doliński and Grzyb tried, fruitlessly, to find other explanations for the obedience of their subjects. For example, the greater empathy of certain individuals or the expectation of swapping places with the victim. In the end, however, they were compelled to return to Milgram’s original hypothesis.

“Despite the passing of many years since the studies,” they say, “the agentic state Milgram proposed continues to appear an important and difficult to invalidate means of explaining the obedience of participants in experiments conducted within that paradigm.”

I am not trying to paint a picture of Milgram as a flawless seeker of truth. Although he belatedly came up with the idea of the agentic state, he didn’t think through the implications of what he was proposing and kept resorting to superficial explanations. For example, that ordinary people were torturers beneath the surface and that Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi executed for organising the Holocaust, personified the dilemma of obedience.

In fact, as the book elucidates, Eichmann was a complete red herring. He was an idealistic Nazi and, on occasion, consciously disobedient towards his superior (Himmler, head of the SS). Moreover, the ‘social situation’ of Milgram’s agentic state, with subordinates obeying orders and “superordinates” delivering them, referred explicitly to hierarchical organisations.  As noted long ago by Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism, Nazism was the very opposite of a hierarchical system. Authority derived directly from Hitler, not from thousands of ‘little füehrers’ lording it over their underlings. Eichmann embodied this very well. He was utterly bound up in the Füehrerprinzip, and felt no obligation to his alleged ‘superiors’ in the Nazi system, only to Hitler himself.

Voluntary Hierarchies

Thus, taking totalitarian systems organised around the leader principle out of the equation, you are left with three hierarchical systems that conform to Milgram’s definition: corporations, bureaucracies and conventional militaries.

However, Milgram also highlighted the crucial effect of what he termed “voluntary entry”. Participants not only freely signed up to the experiment they were told, unequivocally, they were free to leave at any point. Enlisted individuals do not have that freedom. Even if they joined voluntarily and were not conscripted, they are subject to military discipline and cannot just abscond.

So, in truth, you are left with two hierarchical organisations that embody Milgram’s agentic state and obedience to authority – corporations and government bureaucracies. Both are utterly dependent on waged labour.

 In part two, I want to examine the – widely unrecognised – implications of this dependence. Or what Milgram, whether he knew it or not, was really talking about.

1 comment:

  1. According to Rutger Bregman, in ‘Humankind: A Hopeful History’, “only 56% of his [Milgram’s] subjects believed they were actually inflicting pain on the learner”. This is quite misleading. It comes from a table in Gina Perry’s book ‘Behind the Shock Machine’ which in itself is a reinterpretation of a table in Milgram’s ‘Obedience to Authority’. What the table says is that, in a follow-up questionnaire, 56.1% of Milgram’s subjects said they *fully* believed the learner was getting painful shocks. Another 24% believed the learner was *probably* getting the shocks, although they had some doubts. Milgram added the two together and asserted that “three quarters of the subjects … by their own testimony acted under the belief that they were administering painful shocks.” Perry says this is wrong and that you can only say that 56% fully believed the experiment was real; hence Bregman’s claim. But I think, in practical terms, Milgram is right. The disbelief hypothesis rests on the idea that subjects go on delivering ostensibly excruciating electric shocks because they are convinced no-one is really being hurt, so it doesn’t matter and they do what they are told to do. However, to follow this line of action, you have to be pretty sure that the shocks aren’t real, not merely have some doubts in the back of your mind. If you aren’t fairly sure, you wouldn’t, in my opinion, run the risk of someone really being hurt or even killed through your actions. So it is accurate to infer that three quarters of the subjects *acted under the belief* that they were administering painful shocks. In reality, the ‘seeing through the hoax’ scenario only applies to the subjects who said they probably believed the learner wasn’t getting any shocks, or were certain they weren’t – 15.8%. Or maybe even just to those who were certain it was a set-up, a mere 2.4%.