You must obey this blog post

Most everybody is familiar with Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments in which subjects were verbally coerced into providing extreme (but unknown to them, fake) electrical shocks to other people.  If you are somehow not familiar, youtube is a great place to familiarize yourself.

Milgram’s book on the experiments is actually one of the best books I read as an undergraduate.  It is basically a master class in how to do thoughtful, experimental social science.  There was round after round of experimentation as each time Milgram sought to isolate a different factor which may be accounting for the results.  And the substantially different effects of the variations are quite interesting (e.g., conducting the experiment away from the institutional authority of Yale, holding down somebody’s hand to a shock plate, etc.).

I bring all this up now, as there was a nice piece in the Atlantic recently about how modern psychologists are re-thinking the meaning of Milgram’s work.

In recent years, though, much of the attention has focused less on supporting or discrediting Milgram’s statistics, and more on rethinking his conclusions. With a paper published earlier this month in the British Journal of Social Psychology, Matthew Hollander, a sociology Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin, is among the most recent to question Milgram’s notion of obedience. After analyzing the conversation patterns from audio recordings of 117 study participants, Hollander found that Milgram’s original classification of his subjects—either obedient or disobedient—failed to capture the true dynamics of the situation. Rather, he argued, people in both categories tried several different forms of protest—those who successfully ended the experiment early were simply better at resisting than the ones that continued shocking…

It’s a far cry from Milgram’s idea that the capacity for evil lies dormant in everyone, ready to be awakened with the right set of circumstances. The ability to disobey toxic orders, Hollander said, is a skill that can be taught like any other—all a person needs to learn is what to say and how to say it.

I love that point because I’ve always felt that simply knowing about the Milgram experiments makes me far less likely to shock anybody up to 450 volts (or, the metaphorical equivalent, of course).  And I’m sure I’m not alone in this.

Anyway, as to what we are supposed to make of all this today…

He [Stephen Reicher] and his colleague Alex Haslam, the third co-editor of The Journal of Social Issues’ Milgram edition and a professor of psychology at the University of Queensland, have come up with a different answer. “The notion that we somehow automatically obey authority, that we are somehow programmed, doesn’t account for the variability [in rates of obedience] across conditions,” he said; in some iterations of Milgram’s study, the rate of compliance was close to 100 percent, while in others it was closer to zero. “We need an account that can explain the variability—when we obey, when we don’t.”

“We argue that the answer to that question is a matter of identification,” he continued. “Do they identify more with the cause of science, and listen to the experimenter as a legitimate representative of science, or do they identify more with the learner as an ordinary person? … You’re torn between these different voices. Who do you listen to?”

The question, he conceded, applies as much to the study of Milgram today as it does to what went on in his lab. “Trying to get a consensus among academics is like herding cats,” Reicher said, but “if there is a consensus, it’s that we need a new explanation. I think nearly everybody accepts the fact that Milgram discovered a remarkable phenomenon, but he didn’t provide a very compelling explanation of that phenomenon.”

What he provided instead was a difficult and deeply uncomfortable set of questions—and his research, flawed as it is, endures not because it clarifies the causes of human atrocities, but because it confuses more than it answers.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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