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Life Arts

Six Years Ago: Jenny Diski Writes About Stanley Milgram's Torture Experiments

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EXPERIMENTER: It's absolutely essential that you continue. Please go on.

SUBJECT: [chair scuffles] You know, I'm to the point now I can just feel each one with him. [sigh] The next one is GREEN: grass, hat, ink, apple . . .

The sighs continued and there were long pauses before each following shock was given, but this subject was fully obedient and went on to flip all the switches.

In the initial experiment there were 40 subjects. Many of those who went the whole 450 volts queried the authority in charge, but once they were told they had to, they continued even while expressing discomfort. Some were chillingly obedient. A 37-year-old welder's response was described in detail. He was in a variation of the original experiment where the learner is present and the subject is required to press his hand down onto an electric plate to administer the shock.

The learner, seated alongside him, begs him to stop, but with robotic impassivity, he continues the procedure . . . He relates to the experimenter in a submissive and courteous fashion. At the 330-volt level, the learner refuses not only to touch the shock plate, but also to provide any answers. Annoyed, Batta turns to him and chastises him: 'You better answer and get it over with. We can't stay here all night.' . . . He seems to derive no pleasure from the act itself, only quiet satisfaction at doing his job properly. When he administers 450 volts, he turns to the experimenter and asks: 'Where do we go from here, Professor?' His tone is deferential and expresses his willingness to be a co-operative subject, in contrast to the learner's obstinacy.

In this hands-on variation, Milgram expected one or two subjects, at most, to go on to the final switch. In fact, 12 out of 40 were fully compliant. 'It's a very disturbing sight,' Milgram noted, 'since the victim resists strenuously and emits cries of agony.' In the original experiment with an audible but invisible learner, 26 out of 40 subjects were fully obedient and pressed the 450-volt switch; no subject stopped before 300 volts, the 'intense shock' zone; five refused to go on beyond that point, and 14 defied the experimenter somewhere short of 450 volts.

But it must be just as important to consider the 35 per cent of subjects who did at some point refuse to continue. Early resistance to authority seemed to be the key, Milgram thought. The later they left it to complain, the greater the pressure to rationalize. Two examples of dissent are given in Thomas Blass's book. One man puts his foot down at 135 volts:

EXPERIMENTER: The experiment requires that you go on, teacher. Go on, please.

SUBJECT: But if you don't mind, I'd like to see him myself before I do go on.

EXPERIMENTER: . . . It's absolutely essential that you continue, teacher. Go on.

SUBJECT: Well, I don't know. I don't think I'd like to take that myself, what he is taking right now.

EXPERIMENTER: You have no other choice.

SUBJECT: [sneering] I'll give you your check back if you want.

The second dissenter does not finally refuse until 315 volts and is then told he has no other choice. 'I have no other choice? Hmmm. Hmmm. [pause] I think I have.' (It's not clear to me whether my heart should soar at the man's recognition of the individual's personal responsibility in the matter of obeying authority, or sink because his refusal is in response to a challenge to his ego.)

Milgram discovers in his laboratory that there is a tendency to obey authority. But why? Because of an inherent obedience, deference to men in white coats, an unwillingness to spoil a 'useful' experiment, sadism, the curious inertia in life generally that makes it harder to stop than to start, a social anxiety against speaking up, or just conditioned good manners? It's probably the case that politeness is the reason many victims, knowing it not to be wise, get into the cars of strangers or answer the door to them. Milgram opts for a vaguely socio-biological explanation that supposes social cohesion has made obedience a requirement for "fitness', but even he doesn't seem very convinced. A more central question remains, and is not discoverable in Milgram's experiments. Why did some people refuse when others didn't? Yes, we are inclined to comply easy life, fear of group disapproval, reprisals, wanting to be in with the top guys but what is it about the 35 per cent of refusers that made them eventually able to refuse? It was really only half an experiment, and the less useful half.

Milgram was a whiz at devising sexy experiments, but barely interested in any theoretical basis for them. They all have the same instant attractiveness of style, and then an underlying emptiness. He invented one experiment to test the idea that later became the basis of John Guare's play Six Degrees of Separation, getting students to try to make contact with someone a world away by asking only one close friend for a further contact until the designated person was reached. It turned out that generally it required a maximum of 12 contacts to get to anyone. Interesting, certainly, and a fine idea to pick up and play with as Guare did, but Milgram was not much inclined to tease meaning out of his findings. Perhaps he lost interest after the active part of devising and carrying out the experiment was over, or perhaps he realized that without a theory to test, experiments are little more than expensive though entertaining anecdotes. He also invented the "lost letter' technique of supposedly testing local social and political feeling by dropping hundreds of stamped letters addressed, for example, to white racist and radical black organizations (in reality, PO boxes set up by the experimenters), and made the discovery that fewer letters were picked up and kindly posted to the racist addresses in black areas than letters addressed to the Panthers, and vice versa, of course, in white communities. The findings of these experiments were recorded but they hardly give very deep or valuable information; less, in the case of the lost letter technique, I imagine, than the crudest of opinion polls.

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I have a law degree (Stanford, 66') but have never practiced. Instead, from 1967 through 1977, I tried to contribute to the revolution in America. As unsuccessful as everyone else over that decade, in 1978 I went to work for the U.S. Forest (more...)

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A discussion of what circumstances allow a person ... by sometimes blinded on Sunday, Apr 11, 2010 at 8:27:59 AM
for this insight, sb. Jenny Diski has become my fa... by GLloyd Rowsey on Sunday, Apr 11, 2010 at 8:40:21 AM
My problem, (or my advantage), was to not conform.... by marko polo on Monday, Apr 12, 2010 at 11:24:20 AM
Lloyd - Thanks for the valueable article on experi... by David McCauley on Tuesday, Apr 13, 2010 at 6:56:02 AM