by Charles Carreon
August 16, 2009
Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View, published in 1974, is a short book that became a must-read text for behavioral scientists by dropping the following bombshell: Ordinary people will intentionally torture other people with agonizing electrical shocks if a man in a white lab coat tells them that it’s all part of a “learning experiment.” Milgram managed to garner this information without actually shocking anyone. The “learners” being shocked were actors; the true subjects of the experiment were the “teachers;” and the experiment was designed to determine if any of the “teachers” could disobey the “experimenter’s” order to “proceed with the experiment” once the “learners” began to scream in pain.
Milgram’s data showed that, if they couldn’t hear the screaming, 65% of the “teachers” would give their “learners” what they believed was a 450 volt shock using a switch labeled “DANGEROUS.” If they were able to hear their “learner” screaming, 62.5% of the “teachers” would administer the 450 volt shock. If they had physically touched their “learner,” 30% of the “teachers” would administer the 450 volt shock. Milgram’s results were replicated in studies around the world, with the highest “obedience” score being recorded in a study in Munich, where 85% of the “teachers” would shock up to the highest level. Based on this data, Milgram reached a number of intermediate conclusions of doubtful validity, and one final conclusion that in this writer’s opinion, is almost certainly wrong.
In this essay, I first debunk Milgram's final conclusion -- that humans are hardwired to obey even evil and immoral orders -- then explain why his intermediate conclusions are unwarranted, and finally, derive what I believe are valid conclusions to draw from the experiment.
Milgram’s final conclusion is founded on the pseudo-Darwinistic generalizations so common among the scientists writing in the post-Second World War period:
Let us begin by observing that Milgram refers to humans as “men,” and that men are the most violent half of the human species. Let us then deconstruct the blithe assertion that “men … function within hierarchical structures,” a statement that ignores the fact that all the evidence shows that historically, from the Neolithic cave-painter tribes to the aboriginal tribes of today, “hierarchical” society has not been the norm. Just as it has been said that, statistically, most people have eaten reindeer as the principal component of their diet, so also, most humans have lived in non-hierarchical societies.Let us begin our analysis by noting that men are not solitary but function within hierarchical structures. In birds, amphibians, and mammals we find dominance structures (Tinbergen, 1953; Marler, 1967), and in human beings, structures of authority mediated by symbols rather than direct contests of physical strength. The formation of hierarchically organized groupings lends enormous advantage to those so organized in coping with dangers of the physical environment, threats posed by competing species, and potential disruption from within.
Let us next consider how scientific a statement can be that attempts to derive a conclusion from a one-sentence generalization about “birds, amphibians, and mammals.” Aside from being ridiculously overbroad, it makes no sense. Is Milgram really saying that lions, that hunt in groups, are evolutionarily advantaged over tigers and jaguars, that do not? Really? Then consider this statement by Milgram, a little farther down the page: “Behaviors that did not enhance the chances of survival were successively bred out of the organism because they led to the eventual extinction of the groups that displayed them.” Is that so? Then why are there any tigers and jaguars left at all, if their individualized hunting system is inferior to that of their competitors?
Let us conclude by straining the jargon and hyperbole from this sentence, “The formation of hierarchically organized groupings lends enormous advantage to those so organized in coping with dangers of the physical environment, threats posed by competing species, and potential disruption from within. This mass of verbiage can be condensed to the following compact statement: “Heirarchical societies repel internal and external threats more effectively than non-hierarchical ones.” Excuse me? Is that why Cortez, with forty-nine men on horseback, defeated the entire Aztec empire? Aztec society was perhaps the most hierarchical in human history. Aztec priests, armed with divine authority, sacrificed numberless humans in an orgy of socially-approved bloodletting aimed at ensuring the yearly return of the sun. Cortez may have commanded a disciplined cadre of armed men, but surely Moctezuma’s “enormous” hierarchical leverage and enormous armies should have carried the day. Similarly, if hierarchy and numerical advantage is an evolutionary trump-card, the Incas should have prevailed over Pizarro, the Teutonic barbarians could not have toppled the Roman Empire, and Sitting Bull could not have won at Little Big Horn. Milgram’s argument that hierarchical societies are the product of natural selection is little more than hogwash laced with Darwin-flavored Kool-Aid.
Unconcerned that his argument is a counterfeit of valid evolutionary thinking, Milgram spends freely, erecting monuments of nonsense that have been taken at face value by generations of readers. Take this statement, in which Milgram concretizes the “enormous” advantage of hierarchy by evoking the monuments of the Pharaohs and ancient Athens: “We look around at the civilizations men have built, and realize that only directed, concerted action could have raised the pyramids, formed the societies of Greece, and lifted man from a pitiable creature struggling for survival to technical mastery of the planet.” Again “men” do all the building, and the fact that both Egypt and Greece built their cyclopean structures with slave labor is conveniently forgotten. One may well also ask, aside from attracting tourists, what advantages do the Parthenon and the Sphinx bring to the inhabitants of modern day Greece and Egypt? Finally, Milgram, writing at the height of the Cold War, conveniently forgets that our “technical mastery of the planet” placed humanity a button-push away from planetary holocaust, while for millions of years, our ancestors had never faced that danger, despite being “pitiable creatures struggling for survival.”
Milgram pumps the close of his pro-hierarchy sermon with one last scientific fable. Observing how, after “a wolf pack brings down its prey … the dominant wolf enjoys first privileges, followed by the next dominant one,” Milgram argues that the pack is “stabilized” by hierarchy – as if there had ever been a canine revolution or a Bolshevik wolf! From this anthropomorphic claim, Milgram derives a Confucian aphorism: “Internal harmony is ensured when all members accept the status assigned to them.” Forget that Confucius was concerned that without social rules society would go to the dogs -- Milgram has the dogs teaching philosophy!
Today, when the biggest dogs on Wall Street have eaten the entire economy and then some, the unemployed can take comfort in Milgram’s reminder that they are contributing to the stability of society by accepting a low place in the feeding hierarchy. Indeed, our species as a whole enjoys, yes, you guessed it, an “enormous” advantage. Ever wondered why Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley preside over the nation’s economy, paying its top employees millions in bonuses? Look no further than Stanley Milgram for an explanation – we are born to this subjugation, and better off for it, “because organization has enormous survival value,” and therefore “was bred into the organism through the extended operation of evolutionary processes.”
Perhaps you think I am being uncharitable, but Milgram needs no charity. He said he wanted to provide us with knowledge, and we shouldn’t accept ignorance in its stead out of respect for his ghost. Presumably because he caught humanity in an unflattering pose, all of his generalizations have been swallowed relatively uncritically. Having revealed his argument that obedience is biological destiny to be utter nonsense, we can proceed to the next level of the critique.
Milgram deceived the subjects of his experiment, the “teachers,” in at least three ways. First, he told them that he was conducting an experiment that he was not, in fact, conducting. Second, he told them that the experiment was lawful. Third, while the experiment was in progress, he had his white-coated “experimenters” tell the “teachers” that if anything happened to the learners, the consequences would not fall upon the “teacher,” but rather on the experimenter.
The first lie is obvious to everyone, but the reader must be careful to keep it in mind, remembering that although the experiment that Milgram performed was not illegal, the experiment the “teachers” thought they were performing would have been illegal, if they had actually performed it. Obviously, the experiment would not have “worked” without this deception.
The second lie is clearly not obvious, since it apparently didn’t occur to any of the participants, that the whole experiment they thought they were conducting was illegal. We may presume that Milgram didn’t recruit any criminal lawyers into his experiment, because any prosecutor or criminal defense lawyer would know that an experiment that subjects people to dangerous electric shocks would be criminal despite the “scientific” trappings. They would also tell you that, even if “learners” consented to suffer some level of harmless shock, refusing to stop the shocking after they demanded it would be criminal. An astute criminal lawyer might even suspect that the whole setup was devised as a “sting” operation by some imaginative prosecutor seeking to convict people of assault by electroshock.
For example, if the same criminal laws were applied to the “teachers,” as are applied to accused pedophiles, drug dealers, and weapons traffickers, the teachers could have been convicted of torture. Everyone has heard stories about the pedophile who engages in an online exchange in which some apparently sick person offers to set them up in a hotel room for a tryst with a ten-year old. Money changes hands, and the pedophile walks into Room 33 at the Roadside Chalet with a heart full of yearning and a bag of compromising novelties, children’s books and Valium, only to be met by a group of heavily armed men with an arrest warrant. Thousands of people are in prison right now for trying to buy drugs from police agents who had no drugs to sell, because the mere expressed intention to buy the illicit substance and an act in furtherance of that intention, is a convictable offense. In the arms-trafficking context, in 2005, a New Jersey jury convicted British citizen Hemant Lakhani merely for being willing to aid terrorists, by being present when an informant “sold” a fake shoulder-fired missile to the FBI. Lakhani, in his seventies, was sentenced to 47 years in prison.
Similarly, who could doubt that an aggressive prosecutor looking to pull off a “torture sting” could set up a Milgram-style “experiment,” and charge those who agreed to participate? Many jurors would vote to convict defendants who were demonstrably willing to administer additional shocks to victims who appeared to be screaming in agony. It wouldn’t matter that the “learners” in the sting were actors, just as it made no difference that the shoulder-fired missile in the Lakhani case was a fake. The commission of an act that the actor believed would cause agony would suffice for conviction.
So Milgram lied when he told the “teachers” that the experiment as they believed it was being conducted -- was lawful. In a fraud prosecution, the law defines such a lie as a “material misrepresentation,” because the truth about this subject would be “material” to a person making the decision whether to participate in the experiment. Nobody would have agreed to participate if they had been required to sign a waiver form that said, “I understand that the legality of this experiment is doubtful, and I could be prosecuted for assault or more serious crimes if the learners are injured by teaching shocks that I administer.” Let us imagine, for sake of analysis, that one of the “teachers,” unable to deal with the stress of being “forced” to continue shocking the “learners,” had fallen over dead of a heart attack. His heirs would have been legally justified in suing Milgram and his accomplices for fraudulently inducing him to participate in a risky activity that in fact caused death.
The third lie Milgram told was that “teachers” would bear no responsibility for their actions. This lie was delivered by the “experimenter,” the man in the lab coat, when “teachers” questioned whether it was really proper to continue shocking people who were screaming in pain already. The experimenter would say, “it’s my responsibility” or similar words that removed the burden of continuing the “experiment” from the teacher’s shoulders.
Milgram’s experiment thus does not prove what he claims – that people in a “legitimate” environment will torture other people because they are biologically programmed to obey authority. It proves that if people are conned by scientists into thinking that their acts are part of a genuine scientific study (that has of course been vetted for safety and legality), then they will do what, under other circumstances, they would not do – torture their neighbors with electroshock. It proves that scientists can develop a convincing con that can overwhelm people’s basic good sense by brandishing their credentials and supplanting lawful authority with a twisted simulation of a scientific setting.
Milgram asserts that people were unable to break the spell of “obedience” because they were in an “agentic state,” in which they have no independent will, and their body is merely a connecting rod between the will of their director and the task that must be performed. Milgram states that the stress of torturing people threatens to break them out of the agentic state, but certain “binding factors” prevent them from acting. There are essentially two “binding factors”: first, the subject’s fear that if he stops shocking the “learner,” it will confirm the wrongness of what he has done up until that point, and second, the subject’s fear that if he refuses to continue, he will break a commitment to the experimenter and insult his authority. The “agentic state,” Milgram asserts, taps into each person’s inner subordinate, a pure suckup, who does not look outward to see the world, but rather, looks up and sees his superior, who for him, becomes the world.
Milgram’s image of humans genetically programmed to serve as agents of superior authority, is fortunately unsupported by the evidence. Milgram has drawn false conclusions by refusing to acknowledge that he induced people to participate in the experiment by telling them it was lawful. He refuses to acknowledge that since the participation of his subjects in the “learning experiment” was procured by fraud, it was not voluntary. He further refuses to see that more than “binding factors” are preventing his subjects from abandoning the experiment. In addition to the “binding factors,” and obviously more importantly, they are prevented from renouncing that agreement by keeping them physically confined in the phony laboratory, and psychologically confined in a state of ignorance. If the truth that the learning experiment was unlawful had been revealed at the outset, he would have had no participants. And if it had been revealed when the screaming started, they would all have quit. So deception by creating a false appearance of lawful authority, not obedience to lawful authority, was the cause of the experimental results.
Milgram’s duplicity is equally in evidence when he cons his readers with his unwarranted conclusions. Deploying the jargon of natural selection, and tossing about a few platitudes about the glory that was Greece, he makes a quick and dirty argument that invokes Darwinism to support the silly claim that “obedience” is bred into humanity by millions of years of evolution. In truth, the social organizations of animals have been the subject of thousands of studies by natural scientists, and the term “obedience” does not feature prominently in their analyses. Milgram simply asserts his prejudice and claims that science supports it, but this is no more scientific than torturing people to teach them how to memorize word lists would have been. He is huckstering his readers with faux science just as he deceived his experimental subjects. His essay is supported with charts and graphs. He summarizes his findings in percentages by category. This must be science – it looks like it! On the contrary, it looks like science, but it is not.
What we can learn from Milgram is that people who lack an understanding of law and science can be manipulated by unscrupulous people. This is called criminality. It is not lawful authority. Whenever people are induced to commit acts that transgress the limits of law as they know it, whether it be the law of how to treat your neighbors, your children, or prisoners of war, the people who lead them into this moral transgression are criminals, and the people who commit the wrongful acts become criminals by participating. Milgram puzzles over what his subjects had to do in order to reach the level of refusing to participate in the experiment, but his analysis hits a dead-end when he decides to blame “evolution” for the tendency of people to give in to authority.
Evolution is not to blame, and our human biology does not doom us to slavish compliance with whatever top dog sits above us in the hierarchy. It is the abuse of authority by people who will create false, theatrical dramas to compel the obedience of other humans that can order soldiers to commit acts of war, torture, and mass killing. There is more than a passing similarity between how Milgram enlisted participants in his experiment, and how a nation of peaceful citizens is whipped up into a war fever. In both cases, lies are essential, and repeated assurances from the authorities that the whole enterprise is lawful and necessary. And the same missing factor – honest information about the experiment, or the war – would bring both to a grinding halt.
So we can learn from Milgram, so long as we don’t accept his conclusions. What we can learn is that whenever so-called authorities demand that we perform acts that we know, based on our deeply-ingrained social norms, are wrong, these authorities are acting outside of their lawful scope. Regardless of whether they are wearing lab coats, banker’s suits, police badges, military uniforms, or religious robes, if they direct us to violate moral or social law, they are not real authorities, they are deceivers, con-artists, attempting to exploit our ignorance. Whenever someone tries to overwhelm us with urgent demands, claiming that we must act contrary to past precedent because the old rules don’t apply in this “new” situation, we need to ask questions, demand answers, and declare our right to act according to our own inner moral guidance.
In every situation that presents a serious moral question for our decision, we must insist on our individual right to make that decision personally, based on our own convictions. We must reject Milgram's version of original sin, that we might call original servitude, and with it the notion that it is either right or inevitable that we should bow to the dictates of self-appointed authorities. As members of a democratic society, who bear the duty of self-governance, we must remember that we are individuals, born free, and can remain so only by asserting that we will live and act by the light of our own understanding. And authority be damned.