This is experiment is a very curious examination of human nature. I knew of this experiment quite well previously, making the results slightly less shocking.
The immediate conclusions are clear: people obey authority. We all accept authority willingly. In examining this, I think that there is no clearer evidence of how we accept authority than the testimony of the “teacher.”
One of the first things that truly stood out to me during his interview was when he was simply asked, “Why didn’t you just stop?” The answer was simple, “He wouldn’t let me.” He goes on concerning the same subject. He says, “I kept insisting we stop, [Williams] said no.” The first quote intrigues me. The experimenter in no way forced the subject to do anything. He only calmly asked. However, the subject felt forced to continue. The “teacher” always had the physical capability to stop. However, he never did. He admits that he ultimately only continued because he had been ordered to do so.
I do not fully understand why we may follow authority so easily. I was intrigued by seeing that Milgram believes that obedience is a learned trait. We are taught to listen to commands from a young age. This makes me wonder if obedience is not only a habit but rather a value. I believe that many of us are taught to value obedience, and so we use it above all else when making decisions. We need this value, too, as the article points out, in order to have a fully functioning society.
I think that it is moderately unsettling to consider RitzCracker’s theory. I hope that there is not any soul who would kill another merely for the sake of the novelty. That could lead to an explosion in homicide rates. However, it could show simply how easy it is for humans to be persuaded.
This man was extremely obedient, even if he did not want to be. He explains this too in the interview. He simply says, repeating the asked question, “Something [the learner] would have said to gotten me to stop? No.” He admits that he would have followed the order no matter the circumstances presented to him. It is not surprising, then, that Milgram would feel disturbed encountering these people in his daily life.
The implications of this statement are extremely terrifying. It means that we will tune out the outside world. There was a Black Mirror episode that dealt with this concept to a degree. The episode is called “Men Against Fire” and is from the third season. In it, the premise is that the government has developed a technology which allows soldier not to see their victims as humans. When this technology starts to fail, the main character begins to realize the existence of this technology, and so he begins resistant to obedience. However, I do not believe that this is legitimate. While he may have been committing genocide, he was receiving orders. It is unlikely that he ever would have stopped in actuality.
The next and arguably most disturbing part of the interview came right in the center. The man did not claim to be distressed, or anxious but rather just worried for the life and well being of his friend. I doubt whether or not he was actually telling the truth in this instance. The two things that gave him away were (1) his use of a cigarette to ease himself and (2) his seeming denial of his actions.
His use of a cigarette may have been due to social acceptability. However, it is also quite possible that he was using the nicotine in an attempt to calm his nerves. It may have been a nervous habit for him to simply have something in his mouth.
The man also seems to attempt to glorify himself and deny all culpability for the incident. When posed the idea that if he were in a medical setting, would things be any different, he says that maybe if he had known that it was safe, “[he] would go on.” This point amazes me. To me, it does not matter that he did pause at points. He ultimately did continue with the coaching of the experimenter. By saying “I would go on,” there is an implication that at the moment he stood up, all responsibility for his actions transferred from his own self to the experimenter. He did not injure Wallace, the experimenter did.
As many have already noted, starting with The River, these are also the moments when the teacher asks if the experimenter will take responsibility for the actions. There is an obsession with who may be the responsible actor.
He goes on saying, “I was getting ready to walk out” and “I was just about ready to get out of here.” He seems to claim that he had taken all possible steps to prevent an atrocity. If he had only been pushed a little further, he would have left, as he claims. However, as his previous quote shows, there was no possibility of this happening. He wanted to vindicate his own actions. For this reason, I do not doubt that he would do this again.
Before discussing the implications of this study, I would like to discuss a few things.
First, according to the article, 83.7% of those surveyed said they were glad to have done what they did. This is terrifying. I think that this means that humans have the tendency to be able to justify their actions, no matter how terrible they may be.
The second thing I would like to discuss are the variations to this study. The few that are the most interesting to note are what happened when the experimenter was not presented. Rates decreased dramatically, with some teachers even faking their actions, lying that they had administered a shock.
The next interesting result is the one in which participants completed the task with other teachers. If the others complied, they were more likely to. If they did not, they too were less likely to comply. The implication shows that we are more likely to either start or stop committing morally atrocious acts if we are surrounded by others who are acting in the same way.
The final interesting iteration is when participants had to do a subsidiary task (ask questions by a microphone or record the answers) while another teacher did the shocking. Out of the 40 subjects, 37 complied. This is the epitome of the bystander effect. Most participants would not care to do anything to stop and would be complicit with the seeming member of another individual. Ultimately, this shows that most participants (a number significantly higher than 50%) were willing in one way or another to help in the killing of another.
This brings me to my final point on the experiment proper. Milgram says he wouldn’t shock the learner. I simply cannot believe that he would say this. Milgram understood that those whom we would typically consider being innocent are not and are more than willing to commit acts of murder. Milgram should have understood that there was no way to be immune from this. However, if I had had the ability to meet Milgram before he died and could only ask one question, I would ask, “Mr. Milgram, if you had been in this experiment, and had not known that it was about obedience, where would you stop? Where would you draw the line?” I would frame his answer.
RitzCracker also addressed this in their post, saying that we do not know how far we may go. I too do not know at exactly what point I would stop. I do not even know if any of us can confidently predict our rebellion.
The implications of this experiment show me a simple answer to one of the proposed questions. I think that, with the right amount of encouragement by proper authority, most humans can be compelled to do actually anything. I do not think that there is any task which would be so terrible that no one would listen with the right encouragement.
I think we can also learn from this experiment that humans have no genuine free choice in their actions. When under the control of greater authority, we do not actually decide what we want to do for our own selves, but rather we allow that figure to decide for us. This is not a comfortable thing to realize. As Milgram points out, it would not take much for our government to compel us to act terribly.
The genuine real-world applications of this are numerous. For this reason, I will examine 3.
First, in the case of the Rwandan genocide, the perpetrators understood that they had not been acting by themselves. They explain such in many of their own testimonies, saying that they were being forced to kill others. The interhamwe had forced them to kill, as they explain. This is untrue, as they did not have specific killing quotes, nor did the interhamwe constantly have a gun on the back of their head. Nevertheless, they felt forced.
People were also compelled by the Radio. The radio shouted orders directly to kill. It gave the locations of those running. It did not force anyone to kill. It only encouraged them to do so. However, there was not an understanding of authority, as the quote I used in my previous post shows. While Radios do not kill people, they do hold the responsibility for their deaths.
The second example is much more light-hearted. We constantly obey the many rules around us. We honor the authority of our teachers. If every student revolted, there would be no one who could stop them. However, despite having such an idea in our heads, there is no genuine initiative to do any such thing. This makes me want to see an iteration of the Milgram experiment where the experimenter casually said something like, “You know, if you stopped, I would not be able to stop you. Nevertheless, it is essential that you continue.” Though I doubt it, I wonder how heavily this would change the outcomes.
However, we accept all the BS school rules. For example, almost no one wears a hat in school (shout out to Mr. Chaumers for being the exception). Not a single person I know carries scissors with them. Everyone dressed up for declamation. We all use school locks despite the school never using their ability to open our lockers. We have never actually had to follow these rules. We have consistently chosen to obey many of these arbitrary rules.
The final example comes from our president, Donald Trump, and his attacks against the media. On multiple occasions, he has called for the assault of journalists. On February 12, one of his supporters, donning a MAGA cap, assault a BBC cameraman.
Many leaders of the Democratic party were sent suspicious packages in late 2018. With them too were prominent news organizations which the president had criticized.
In late 2018, Trump recommended to the Associated Press that no comedian attend the Whitehouse Correspondent’s dinner. They listened, despite this shattering president. This explains why the latest comedic remarks have not exploded on YouTube; they were given by a historian.
Trump has never explicitly advocated the attack of journalists. He has rather called them “the enemy of the people,” praised those who have attacked journalists, and has offered to pay the legal fees for anyone who does. He has mocked anyone he thinks his opposition. He has repetitively shown that he is incapable of handling comedy. While anyone who physically attacks one of these groups may be acting on their own, there is an important discussion to be had as to whose fault it really is.
In response to the Middle Child’s question, my responses are as follows:
I definitely will not do anything different. I have already known of this experiment and I have not been able to motivate myself to change. Since it is easier to listen to authority, I think that I have accepted such as instinct.
I will continue to remain cautious of authority figures. For example, if the headmaster asks me to do anything, I will almost definitely comply. It would be too much trouble to disobey.
For the third question, I think that I may be able to think slightly more critically about each thing I am asked to do by authority, by my actions and opinions will likely hardly change.
And finally, I think that there is an important realization to be made concerning society. We, humans, comprise society. Society does not teach us how to act. Humans do. We adopt human traits through society. I think that what society has always been present within ourselves and society has simply highlighted those tendencies
My question for the next poster is: did this experiment only work because it was set in America? Would have worked in another culture?
Also, what other variables may have altered the outcome? How would they have altered the outcome?