Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Milgram Experiment

Stanley Milgram (1933-1984)

Glenn Greenwald opened his post today, Those authoritarian, torture-loving French Salon 03/17/10, with this description of a French game show based on the famous Milgram Experiment:

French documentarians conducted an experiment where they created a faux game show -- with all the typical studio trappings -- and then instructed participants (who believed it was a real TV program) to administer electric shock to unseen contestants each time they answered questions incorrectly, with increasing potency for each wrong answer. Even as the unseen contestants (who were actors) screamed in agony and pleaded for mercy -- and even once they went silent and were presumably dead -- 81% of the participants continued to obey the instructions of the authority-figure/host and kept administering higher and higher levels of electric shock. The experiment was a replica of the one conducted in 1961 by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram, where 65% of participants obeyed instructions from a designated authority figure to administer electric shock to unseen individuals, and never stopped obeying even as they heard excruciating screams and then silence. This new French experiment was designed to measure the added power of television to place people into submission to authority and induce them to administer torture. [my emphasis]
Glenn's point in his piece was about the strangeness and hypocrisy of American media reaction to this. But he seems to accept the premise that the game show mimics the Milgram Experiment.

But is it surprising that contestants did this? It was a game show, people! Pure show business! It tells us nothing, zero, zilch, nada about the human inclination to inflict pain. It's entirely possible that the show's producers explained the whole thing to the participants ahead of time. The most obvious assumption to make about this French game show experience is that everybody participating most likely assumed there was nothing even remotely harmful in what they were doing.

The Milgram Experiment has achieved the status of conventional wisdom, though urban legend might be closer to the right word for it. The experiment itself was real. And many participants in the experiment did contine administering "shocks" to the "victims" while the victims were feigning pain or even unconsciousness.

But the conclusions that can legitimately be drawn from Milgram's actual 1961 experiment are much more limited than the popular understanding of it reflected in Glenn's comment. The participants in the experiment knew they were participating in a scientific study at Yale University. (Though Milgram did shift the actual location of some of the experiments to run-down offices in a neighboring town.) The experiment itself was set up with familiar trappings of Science which presumably conveyed to participants an air of legitimate scientific authority. Milgram's own account of the experiment notes:

To improve credibility the experimenter declared in response to a question from the learner, "although the shocks can be extremely painful, they cause no permanent tissue damage."
In other words, although the experiment was set up to test who obedient the subjects would be in inflicting pain, the participants who thought they were administering shocks to the "learners" also had reason to assume that there was nothing actually harmful in what they were doing.

While it's disturbing to see that so many people would continue when they were hearing their supposed victim crying out that he was in pain and demanding to be released, it's highly questionable to what extent Milgram's experiment actually modeled how deference to authority is likely to work in real organizational settings.

Erich Fromm in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973) points out that a large portions of the participants showed signs of significant distress at the thought that they were really inflicting pain on the "learner" who was feigning, despite the scientific atmosphere and repeated assurances from an instructor that they were causing pain but doing no real harm. Fromm suggests that it would be plausible to see those reactions as a sign that normally socialized people are very reluctant to inflict pain on others.

Charles Helm and Mario Morelli in "Stanley Milgram and the Obedience Experiment: Authority, Legitimacy, and Human Action" Political Theory 7/3 (Aug 1979) note that Milgram in evaluating his results effectively assumed that authority was a generic attribute. But many of the participants likely had some more-or-less conscious sense that the "authority" in the experiment was not actually someone who had legal authority to encourage them to administer shocks to someone that could be dangerous to his health or deadly.

And the drastic conclusions Milgram drew from his experiment are nearly Calvinistic in their pessimism. But his experimental results can't carry the weight of such a sweeping conclusion:

... the capacity for a man [sic] to abandon his humanity, indeed, the inevitability that he does so, as he merges his unique personality into larger institutional structures.

This is a fatal flaw nature has designed into us, and which in the long run gives our species only a modest chance of survival. [my emphasis]
Helm and Morelli also write:

Milgram's explanation of the dynamics of the psychology lab- "binding factors"-is subtle and shrewd. An individual enters the lab to participate in an experiment on memory and learning. He is desirous of cooperating and fulfilling the experimenter's requests. The individual is a voluntary participant and makes, in effect, a contractual obligation to complete the experiment by his acceptance of money. He is struck by the capability of the experimenter and the scientific character of his equipment. It is emphasized that while painful, the shocks are not dangerous. The experiment begins uneventfully until it reaches around 150 volts, whereupon the "learner"/victim demands to be released. When the subject turns to the experimenter for guidance, he is "ordered" to continue. He dislikes the situation intensely as is evidenced by his nervousness, but accepts the words of the scientist that the experiment is important and that the victim is not really being permanently hurt. The individual has made a commitment and perseveres to the end. Milgram's analysis catches quite nicely the dynamic of the situation, but it also suggests some difficulties in generalizing this account to alternate situations. [my emphasis]
In other words, the lessons of the Milgram Experiment aren't nearly as obvious or as unchallenged as popular folklore might suggest.


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