Readings (referenced below):
- Philip Meyer, “If Hitler asked you to Electrocute a Stranger, Would you? Probably?” taken from Esquire (February 1970). [Another link is here.]
- Summary of Solomon Asch’s conformity experiments from the 1950s
- S. Alexander Haslam and Stephen D. Reicher, “The Power of Tyranny,” Scientific American, 2005.
- Malcolm Harris, “The Psychology of Torture,” Aeon, 7 October 2014.
Viewing: If you were not in class when I showed the Milgram Obedience experiment footage, please do the following: go to the Keefe Library home page (https://libguides.bls.org/keefehome/databases) and then in the left column, click on “Academic Video Online from Alexander Street (ProQuest)” and then at the upper right, search “Obedience.” You should see a black/white video that’s the first one in the top row (on the left), called “Obedience, 1962.” (45:17) When you open that video, you should watch two sections:
Time count 0:19 through 9:14 [this is also at the start of clip #1]
Then time count 21:59 through 39:16 [this is also at the start of clip #2]
Now that you’ve seen a portion of the film of Stanley Milgram’s 1961 experiment at Yale, you know that ordinary people are capable of doing startling things out of obedience to someone or to some sort of idea. Often we would identify these folks at the start as bystanders—people who would not initiate such an activity but who are somehow brought into it. They then have a choice whether to remain a bystander, become a perpetrator, or to become a resister or rescuer.
In Milgram’s experiment, people volunteered to participate in an experiment by responding to an advertisement. That happens all the time. But why do so many of the participants go through with the experiment? Why do so few object?
As background to this experiment, you should look at the reading by Philip Meyer, “If Hitler asked you to Electrocute a Stranger, Would you? Probably?” taken from Esquire (February 1970). (Here is a version that shows the PDF of the original article.) You should also look at an experiment conducted by Solomon Asch in the 1950s. Asch’s work preceded Milgram’s, although this experiment focuses squarely at conformity, a piece (but not the entire piece) of the issue of obeying authority. Take a look at Haslam and Reicher’s article discussing Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment (now discredited) and the BBC followups to that: “The Power of Tyranny,” Scientific American (2005). And finally, consider Malcolm Harris’ perspective in “The Psychology of Torture,” Aeon, 7 October 2014.
Some of the findings that are also important to know about that emerged from Milgram’s experiment:
• 65% of the volunteers (‘teachers’) gave the full 450 volts.
• When Milgram varied the experiment, so that the setting was less academic, only 48% gave
the full 450 volts.
• When Milgram had the authority figure give instructions by telephone (instead of being in the room), only 21% gave the full 450 volts.
• When more than one authority figure was in the room and the two argued over the experiment, no “teacher” continued to the end.
• When the “learner” was in the same room as the teacher, only 40% of the teachers “obeyed.”
• When the “teacher” had to put the “learner’s” hand on the metal plate to give the shock, only 30% obeyed the experiment.
Note what Milgram himself believed:
It is psychologically easy to ignore responsibility when one is only an intermediate link in a chain of evil action but is far from the final consequences of the action. … No one man decides to carry out the evil act and is confronted with his consequences. The person who assumes full responsibility for the act has evaporated. Perhaps this is the most common characteristic of socially organized evil in modern society. (Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority New York, 1974)
And in 1979, just a few years before his death (in 1984, at age 51, after his fifth heart attack), Milgram told 60 Minutes interviewer Morley Safer
“I would say, on the basis of having observed a thousand people in the experiment and having my own intuition shaped and informed by these experiments, that if a system of death camps were set up in the United States of the sort we had seen in Nazi Germany, one would be able to find sufficient personnel for these camps in any medium-sized American town.”
What do you conclude from Milgram’s experiment(s)? Does it give you any insight into human behavior? What will humans be willing to do, why they’ll do it, what they are capable of doing and not doing? Putting aside Hitler for the moment, what kinds of behavior does this experiment help to explain, not only in history but in our own times? To quote from Milgram’s 1979 CBS interview, would we “be able to find sufficient personnel…in any medium-sized American town”?
When you post, please be sure to reference other students’ posts in yours AND be sure at the end to pose a question for the next student to ask. (And be sure to reply also to the question that precedes your post!)