his book-review article appeared six years ago and forty-three years after Stanley Milgram's legendary experiments in New Haven, Connecticut, designed to determine how far ordinary Americans would go to comply with orders to torture. The experiments, not to mention the review, are more relevant now than ever.
Jenny Diski's new book, What I Don't Know About Animals, will be
out this fall. She is a regular contributor
to the London Review of Books. A
previous article at OEN by Diski can be found by clicking here; and two
previous OEN Quick Links by her can be found by clicking here and here. Note that the Quick Link URLs link directly
to the LRB.
The book which Ms. Diski
reviewed in the November 18, 2004, issue of the London Review of Books was: The Man who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy
of Stanley Milgram by Thomas Blass, Basic Books (2004).
The text of the review
"Stanley Milgram's series of experiments to find
out how far individuals would go to obey authority are legendary. Conducted in
New Haven, Connecticut in 1961, they have been cited in manuals written by dog
trainers (Bones Would Rain from the Sky by Suzanne Clothier) and self-help pundits (The
Necessary Disobedience by Maria Modig, dedicated to Milgram), as well as being the source for a Peter Gabriel song
entitled 'We Do What We're Told (Milgram's 37)'. A French punk rock group
called Milgram put out a CD called Vierhundertfünfzig Volt (450
Volts). A British band called Midget issued The Milgram Experiment.
Plays have been written (Dannie Abse's The Dogs of Pavlov was the first,
in 1973); a stand-up comedian, Robbie Chafitz, called his 1999 weekly
off-off-Broadway performances The Stanley Milgram Experiment; a French
movie with Yves Montand, I comme Icare, made in 1979, came out of it,
with Milgram himself pictured on the set; and a textbook used in courses on
business ethics cites the obedience experiments to warn students about the evil
things their bosses might ask of them and how to resist. I can't say about the
dog-training or self-help books, but this last educational effort doesn't seem
to have worked.
Milgram advertised for his subjects in the New
Haven Register (Yale students were considered too aggressive to use), and
paid them $4 for their hour's attendance plus 50 cents' travel allowance. Only
males (except in one variation) were used, and they spanned occupational levels
from unskilled to professional. Each subject sat alone at a fake 'shock
machine' built by Milgram, which had 30 switches, labeled in 15-volt increments
from 15 volts to 450 volts and grouped in fours, with descriptions above each
group: slight shock, moderate shock, strong shock, very strong shock, intense
shock, extreme intensity shock, danger severe shock. The final two switches
were labeled just xxx. Each subject was told they were participating in a 'Memory Project', the aim of which was to study how people learn. They were 'teachers'. In an adjoining room a 'learner' sat wired up to the shock machine.
He had to repeat the second of pairs of words he was supposed to have learned.
The 'teacher' cued with the first word. An incorrect answer was punished with
an electric shock. With each wrong answer the 'teacher' was instructed to move
up a switch. The learner, who was, of course, a member of Milgram's team, could
be heard but not seen, and as the switches were flipped, he began complaining
until, at the higher voltages, he screamed in agony and begged the subject not
to hurt him, demanding his right to be let out. In addition to hearing the pain
they were inflicting, the subjects were told that the learner had a heart
condition. Any reluctance was met by the experimenter saying in authoritative
tones: 'Please go on.' After three prompts, the subject was told: 'You have no
choice, you must go on.' If the subject refused after the fourth prompt,
the experiment was stopped. In some of the variations, after the 300-volt shock
the learner pounded on the wall, and then after 315 volts remained totally
Overall, 65 per cent of subjects were prepared to
administer the 450-volt shock, not once, but several times. They sweated, they
groaned, they queried, but when told they had to do it 'for the experiment',
they flipped the switch. Milgram wrote:
The results are terrifying and depressing. They
suggest that human nature or more specifically, the kind of character
produced in American society cannot be counted on to insulate its citizens
from brutality and inhumane treatment at the direction of malevolent authority.
In a naive moment some time ago, I once wondered whether in all of the United
States a vicious government could find enough moral imbeciles to meet the
personnel requirements of a national system of death camps, of the sort that
were maintained in Germany. I am now beginning to think that the full
complement could be recruited in New
Haven. A substantial proportion of people do what they
are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act, and without pangs of
conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate
Not entirely without pangs or perhaps pleas to be
let off any moral responsibility.
The following is a quote from the transcript. The
subject has just inflicted what he thinks is a 300-volt shock on the invisible
learner next door.
LEARNER: [Agonized scream]
SUBJECT: I, I can't do this any more. [chair
LEARNER: I absolutely refuse to answer any more.
Get me out of here. You can't hold me here. Get me out. Get me out of here.
SUBJECT: I can't do it any more. I'm sorry. I
realize that you're trying to do something.
EXPERIMENTER: The experiment requires that you
continue to do so . . .
SUBJECT: Yes, I know. But I'm just not the type of
person that can inflict pain to anyone else, uh, more than what I feel. I felt
I've gone far beyond what I should.
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
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
Milgram's study of obedience had a very mixed
reception among his colleagues, not just because of its poor theoretical
underpinning, and the fact that it was written up in glossy monthlies and
popular weeklies rather than by Milgram in a professional journal, but because
the experiment itself was thought to be unethical. Putting people under such
extreme stress, even though they were told at the end that they had hurt no
one, couldn't be done today: academic ethical standards committees would refuse
permission for funding. These days, however, nothing prevents similar 'experiments' (Big Brother, the reworking of the Stanford Prison
Experiment, Castaway & Co) being carried out repeatedly for our
fascination and entertainment on reality TV shows, and I wonder if that doesn't
tell us something about the nature of the original experiments. The public,
however, read newspaper reports of the obedience experiments in the mid-1960s
and bought Milgram's 1974 book in industrial quantities. It seemed to be
addressing important problems.
The search for the illumination of dark truths was
rampant in the middle years of the 20th century, those post-Holocaust, Cold War, Vietnam
years, before the Reagan/ Thatcher era. We read testimony of the concentration
camps, and then Colin Turnbull's study of the Ik, which proved that natural man
is a complete sh*t (or, later, that natural man is a complete sh*t when
unnatural man makes him so), was dramatized by Peter Brook, as was Oliver
Sacks's evidence for I'm not sure what in The Man who Mistook His Wife for a
Hat. Napoleon Chagnon's study of the Yanomamo tribe flew around the world as
further evidence that humanity had none. We read Foucault, who proposed that we
were all subject to an authority so nebulous as to be undefeatable. Earlier, in
the 1960s, even Shakespeare got in on the act with Jan Kott's Shakespeare
Our Contemporary: the hopeless anti-heroics of Hamlet and the Nietzschean
Iago were the very stuff that man was made on. We sucked in the awful tales of
human beings and their fathomless vileness like babies on a truth tit. It's
funny that the postwar children have come to be regarded as a formlessly
liberal generation when, as I recall, one of the main projects was to confront
the dark side of humankind in order to learn how it might be neutralised. We
might well have been guilty of thinking too shallowly, of gulping our facts and
developing a taste for the bitter; but happy-go-lucky, laissez-faire and
carefree is not how I remember it. After the Holocaust, man's capacity for
cruelty no longer seemed to be something to do with the remote past and its
lack of indoor lavatory facilities or comprehensive schools, but was what our
own parents were capable of doing. And if our own parents, then with the added
blast of the newly discovered structure of the double helix that wove our
parents into our every cell, why not us?
It didn't seem possible (surely, no one thinks of
themselves as being rotten?), but the banality of evil, or at any rate the
quotidian nature of mercilessness, was there in front of our eyes, and the
postwar generation of social scientists were intent on devising ways to prove
it. We marched against nuclear weapons not just because of their moral poverty,
but also because the more we found out about what humanity was capable of, the
less we could be deceived by the notion that safety lay in the doctrine of
mutually assured destruction. It seemed like a good idea to know the awful
truth about ourselves, although nowadays I'm not sure that just knowing helps
much. We were, if ever there was one, the generation which believed that to
know thyself was to be in a position to change. We must have botched the first
task, because we've certainly bungled the second.
I suspect, however, that we failed to notice a
missing term in the proposition. Between knowing ourselves and change, lay the
chasm of how change might come about. An ill-digested Freudianism suggested
that only awareness was necessary for the great catharsis. Bring the dark out
into the light, show what is hidden, and all will be well. You have to become
aware of what you (that is, we) are like and then, somehow, you (that is, we)
will be different. Thinking of this kind was the problem with the obedience
experiment. Milgram set out with the echoes of Nuremberg and the almost contemporary
Eichmann trial in his mind: perhaps it wasn't just Germans who did what they were
told. But having discovered that Americans, too, valued obedience to authority,
that indeed we are all inclined to do what we are told, there was as ever no
automatic bridge between knowing and changing. We must learn from this, Milgram
said; we all said. But no one said how we were supposed to learn from
it. It seemed it should have been obvious.
Plainly, it wasn't. In spite of the atrocities by
American soldiers in Vietnam,
the French in Algeria, the
British in Northern Ireland,
this very year, politicians and public alike in the US
and the UK
declared themselves baffled, disbelieving and amazed that American and British
soldiers could torture and humiliate Iraqi prisoners. They meant, usually, American
and British soldiers. Not even the elementary lesson Milgram had to
teach has been absorbed. It is still thought that bad guys do bad things and
good guys (that's us) don't do bad things. That's how you tell the difference.
Then it turned out, quite recently, that telling the difference was a very big problem.
For politicians (criminally self-interested or criminally sincere) to declare
our natural goodness and their natural badness is one thing, but that anyone
believes there is an inherently moral distinction which can be defined
geographically or racially means people just haven't been paying attention to
what the 20th century of which the Milgram study was little more than a
reiteration and foreshadowing made hideously clear. Tell people to go to war,
and mostly they will. Tell them to piss on prisoners, and mostly they will.
Tell them to cover up lies, and mostly they will. Authority is government, the
media, the business sector, the priestly men and women in white coats or
mitres. We are trained up in the structure of the family, in school, in work.
Most people do what they are told. Apparently, a majority of people in this
country did not want to join the US
in making war on Iraq.
This country joined the US
in its catastrophic adventure nevertheless. The dissenters marched and argued
and put posters up in their windows, but . . . Great passions were aroused, and
yet . . . For the past eighteen months, the Independent newspaper has
been producing astonishing front pages to make you weep, still . . . It all
happened, and goes on. It could be inertia, or a sense of helplessness, or it
could be that our fear of the consequences of disobedience holds sway over our
judgment. It looks as if in every generation there is moral panic and a
perception (or hallucination of the horror to come) of the next generation as
having lost its predisposition to be obedient. Civilization depends on most of
us doing what we are told most of the time. Real civilization, however, depends
on Milgram's 35 per cent who eventually get round to thinking for themselves.
But that, too, is a lazy, sentimental attitude. The
65/35 per cent split between the compliant and the resistant is just another
version of good and bad, and leaves us essentially ignorant and free to declare
our particular righteousness. Bush can take Milgram's division to signify
Americans and Terrorists; bin Laden can use it to denounce the evil West to the
Followers of Allah; Hitler to set Germans against Jews; Zionists to divide Jews
from Palestinians. And Milgram is no help at all."
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 Service in San Francisco as a Clerk-Typist, GS-4. I was active in the USFS's union for several years, including a brief stint as editor of The Forest Service Monitor, the nationwide voice of the Forest Service in the National Federation of Federal Employees. Howsoever, I now believe my most important contribution while editor of the F.S.M. was bringing to the attention of F.S. employees the fact that the Black-Footed Ferret was not extinct; one had been found in 1980 on a national forest in the Colorado. In 2001 I retired from the USFS after attaining the age of 60 with 23 years of service. Stanford University was evidently unimpressed with my efforts to make USFS investigative reports of tort claim incidents available to tort claimants (ie, "the public"), alleging the negligence of a F.S. employee acting in the scope of his/her duties caused their damages, under the Freedom of Information Act. Oh well. What'cha gonna do?