Friday, March 19, 2010

More critical perspective on the Milgram Experiment


Erich Fromm (1900-1980)

The Milgram Experiment really has established itself in American folklore, and even in science to some extent. In the last few days, iI've seen Jason Linkins (Torture's Clear Lessons Go Unlearned Huffington Post 03/17/10) and Juan Cole (French Television Demonstrates Cheney Effect Informed Comment 03/18/10) both cite it seemingly uncritically.

People embracing the stock interpretation of the Milgram Experiment should recognize the implications that Milgram himself drew from it. And his conclusion argue strongly that "I was just following orders" is a valid excuse for people committing crimes, even one deeply rooted in human biology. As I mentioned in my earlier post on the subject, Milgram concluded:

... 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]
Milgram postulated a condition that he called the "agentic state" in which a person regards himself as "an agent for carrying out another person's wishes."


Charles Helm and Mario Morelli in "Stanley Milgram and the Obedience Experiment: Authority, Legitimacy, and Human Action" Political Theory 7/3 (Aug 1979) described Milgram's concept of the "agentic state" as follows:

The figure of authoring in the form of the experimenter triggers an agentic state. The individual is no longer an autonomous actor: "once the person has moved into the agentic state, [the] evaluative mechanism is wholly absent." [my emphasis]
Milgram was not talking about extreme conditions such as the coercive persuasion applied to cult members. He was talking about the normal functioning of authority.

I don't see any way his conclusions about the biologically-rooted "agentic state" don't validate "I was just following orders" as an excuse for crime, cruelty and atrocities. This is also known as the "Nuremberg defense" after the Nuremberg war crimes trials in which Nazis charged with crimes used this defense, which was rejected as a valid defense by the Tribunal.

(The Milgram quotes above were taken from the Helm/Morelli article, which they cite to Stanley Milgram's Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View [1974].)

But even Milgram's intermediate conclusions on the way to this drastic assumption are questionable. Erich Fromm in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973) argues:

I do not think that this experiment permits any conclusion with regard to most situations in real life. The psychologist was not only an authority to whom one owes obedience, but a representative of Science and of one of the most prestigious institutions of higher education in the United States. Considering that science is widely regarded as the highest value in contemporary industrial society, it is very difficult for the average person to believe that what science commands could be wrong or immoral. ... For the believer neither God nor his modern equivalent, Science, can command anything that is wrong. For this reason, plus others mentioned by Milgram, the high degree of obedience is not more surprising than that 35 per cent of the group refused at some point to obey; in fact this disobedience of more than a third might well be considered more surprising—and encouraging. [my emphasis]
Drawing on his own experience and perspective on how people process psychological conflicts, Fromm believed that Milgram misread the signs of resistance. Misread them to the point that his conclusion may have been the opposite of what a more carefully constructed experiment with results analyzed in a less superficial way might have concluded:

I believe that the most important finding of Milgram's study is the strength of the reactions against the cruel behavior. To be sure, 65 per cent of the subjects could be "conditioned" to behave cruelly, but a reaction of indignation or horror against this sadistic behavior was clearly present in most of them. Unfortunately the author [Milgram] does not give accurate data on the number of "subjects" who remained calm throughout the experiment.
Since Fromm doesn't explain why the data on those subjects was inaccurate, it appears from the context that he probably meant the data on those subjects was not "sufficient", rather than not "accurate".

For the understanding of human behavior, it would be most interesting to know more about them. Apparently they had little or no feeling of opposition to the cruel acts they were performing. The next question is why this was so. One possible answer is that they enjoyed the suffering of others and felt no remorse when their behavior was sanctioned by authority. Another possibility is that they were such highly alienated or narcissistic people that they were insulated against what went on in other people; or they might be "psychopaths," lacking in any kind of moral reaction. As for those in whom the conflict manifested itself in various symptoms of stress and anxiety, it should be assumed that they are people who do not have a sadistic or destructive character. (If one had undertaken an interview in depth, one would have seen the differences in character and even could have made an educated guess as to how people would behave.)

The main result of Milgram's study seems to be one he does not stress: the presence of conscience in most subjects, and their pain when obedience made them act against their conscience. Thus, while the experiment can be interpreted as another proof of the easy dehumanization of man, the subjects' reactions show rather the contrary — the presence of intense forces within them that find cruel behavior intolerable. This suggests an important approach to the study of cruelty in real life: to consider not only cruel behavior but the — often unconscious — guilty conscience of those who obey authority. (The Nazis had to use an elaborate system of camouflage of atrocities in order to cope with the conscience of the average man.) Milgram's experiment is a good illustration of the difference between conscious and unconscious aspects of behavior, even though no use has been made of it to explore this difference. [my emphasis]
Fromm writes that Milgram's experiment and his conclusions took insufficient account of the "difference between behavior and character". Fromm says, "It is one thing to behave according to sadistic rules and another thing to want to be and to enjoy being cruel to people." Milgram reporting the discomfort of a majority of the participants. But this distinction that Fromm makes goes to the heart of deciding what the determinants of the behavior were in the experiment.

Fromm expresses another reservation about the Milgram Experiment. In discussing how people understand game situations, he writes:

If in psychological experiments the "subjects" were clearly aware that the whole situation is only a game, everything would be simple. But in many experiments, as in that of Milgram, they are misinformed and lied to; as for the prison experiment it was set up in such a way that the awareness that everything was only an experiment would be minimized or lost. The very fact that many of these experiments, in order to be undertaken at all, must operate with fakery demonstrates this peculiar unreality; the participants' sense of reality is confused and their critical judgment greatly reduced.
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