THE DILEMMA of OBEDIENCE by Stanley Milgram

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Since the Nuremberg war trials brought the role of obedience in evil to the center stage of world attention, we have wondered about the relationship between individual conscience and social obedience. How does the individual balance the two, or indeed, should they be balanced?


Trying to study such horrible examples of obedience as exemplified by the Third Reich presented psychologists a troublesome scientific problem; How could such extremes of obedience be recreated in the laboratory setting? The late Stanley Milgram was a key figure in designing such analogs of obedience to external authority. Volun­teers for an experiment on learning were induced to administer what they believed were painful shocks to another volunteer—actually a confederate of Milgram’s, Many volunteers obeyed a white-coated experimenter who urged them to keep giving shocks despite the screams of pain they heard.


Milgram, describing these controversial experiments, takes the position that obedience is built into the very fabric of social life, since some authority is essential in society. And in a smoothly running society, individuals sometimes violate the guidelines of their con­science in order to comply—a dilemma for a democratic society. Two people come to a psychology laboratory to take part in a

study of memory and learning. One of them is designated as a “teacher” and the other a “learner.” The experimenter explains that the study is concerned with the effects of punishment on learning. The learner is conducted into a room, seated in a chair, his arms strapped to prevent excessive movement and an electrode attached to his wrist He is told that he is to learn a list of word pairs; whenever he makes an error, he will receive electric shocks of increasing intensity.


The real focus of the experiment is the teacher. After watching the learner being strapped into place, he is taken into the main experi­mental room and seated before an impressive shock generator. Its main feature is a horizontal line of thirty switches, ranging from 15 volts to 450 volts, in 15-volt increments. There are also verbal designations which range from SLIGHT SHOCK to DANGER—SEVERE SHOCK The teacher is told that he is to administer the learning test to the man in the other room. When the learner responds correctly, the teacher moves on to the next item; when the other man gives an incorrect answer, the teacher is to give him an electric shock. He is to start at the lowest shock level (15 volts) and to increase the level each time the man makes an error, going through 30 volts, 45 volts, and so on.


The “teacher” is a genuinely naive subject who has come to the laboratory to participate in an experiment. The learner, or victim, is an actor who actually receives no shock at all. The point of the experiment is to see how far a person will proceed in a concrete and measurable situation in which he is ordered to inflict increasing pain on a protesting victim. At what point will the subject refuse to obey the experimenter?


Conflict arises when the man receiving the shock begins to indicate that he is experiencing discomfort. At 75 volts, the “learner” grunts. At 120 volts he complains verbally; at 150 he demands to be released from the experiment. His protests continue as the shocks escalate, growing increasingly vehement and emotional, At 285 volts his response can only be described as an agonized scream. Observers of the experiment agree that its gripping quality is somewhat obscured in print For the subject the situation is not a game; conflict is intense and obvious. On one hand, the manifest suffering of the learner presses him to quit. On the other, the experimenter, a legitimate authority to whom the subject feels some commitment, enjoins him to continue. Each time the subject hesitates to administer shock, the experimenter orders him to continue. To extricate himself from the situation, the subject must make a clear break with authority. The aim of this investigation was to find when and how people would defy authority in the face of a clear moral imperative.


There are, of course, enormous differences between carrying out the orders of a commanding officer during times of war and carrying out the orders of an experimenter. Yet the essence of certain relationships remain, for one may ask in a general way: How does a man behave when he is told by a legitimate authority to act against a third individual?


A reader’s initial reaction to the experiment may be to wonder why anyone in his right mind would administer even the first shocks. Would he not simply refuse and walk out of the laboratory? But the fact is that no one ever does. Since the subject has come to the laboratory to aid the experimenter, he is quite willing to start off with the procedure. What is surprising is how far ordinary individuals will go in complying with the experimenter’s instructions. Despite the fad that many subjects experience stress, despite the fact that many protest to the experimenter, a substantial proportion continue to the last shock on the generator.


Many subjects will obey the experimenter no matter how vehement the pleading of the person being shocked, no matter how painful the shocks seem to be, and no matter how much the victim pleads to be let out. It is the extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority that constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explana­tion.


A commonly offered explanation is that those who shocked the victim at the most severe level were monsters, the sadistic fringe of society. But if one considers that almosttwo-thirds of the participants fall into the category of “obedient” subjects, and that they represented ordinary people drawn from working, managerial, and professional, classes, the argument becomes very shaky.


This is, perhaps, the most fundamental lesson of our study: ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority. A variety of inhibitions against disobeying authority come into play and successfully keep the person in his place.


What keeps the person obeying the experimenter? First, there is a set of “binding factors” that lock the subject into the situation. They include such factors as politeness on his part, his desire to uphold his initial promise of aid to the experimenter, and the awkwardness of withdrawal. Second, a number of adjustments in the subject’s thinking occur that undermine his resolve to break with the authority. The adjustments help the subject maintain his relationship with the experimenter, while at the same time reducing the strain brought about by the experimental conflict They are typical of thinking that comes about in obedient persons when they are instructed by authority to act against helpless individuals.


One such mechanism is the tendency of the individual to become so absorbed in the narrow technical aspects of the task that he loses sight of its broader consequences. The film Dr. Strangelove bril­liantly satirized the absorption of a bomber crew in the exacting technical procedure of dropping nuclear weapons on a country. Similarly, in this experiment, subjects become immersed in the procedures, reading the word pairs with exquisite articulation and pressing the switches with great care. They want to put on a competent performance, but they show an accompanying narrowing of moral concern. The subject entrusts the broader tasks of setting goals and assessing morality to the experimental authority he is serving.


The most common adjustment of thought in the obedient subject is for him to see himself as not responsible for his own actions. He divests himself of responsibility by attributing all initiative to the experimenter, a legitimate authority, He sees himself not as a person acting in a morally accountable way but as the agent of external authority. In the post-experimental interview, when subjects were asked why they had gone on, a typical reply was: “1 wouldn’t have done it by myself. I was just doing what I was told” Unable to defy the authority of the experimenter, they attribute all responsibility to him. The disappearance of a sense of responsibility is the most far-reaching consequence of submission to authority.


For decades psychologists have discussed the primitive tendency among men to attribute to inanimate objects and forces the qualities of the human species. A countervailing tendency, however, is that of attributing an impersonal quality to forces that are essentially human in origin and maintenance. Some people treat systems of human origin as if they existed above and beyond any human agent, beyond the control of whim or human feeling. The human element behind agencies and institutions is denied. Thus, when the experimenter says. “The experiment requires that you continue,” the subject feels this to be an imperative that goes beyond any merely human command. He does not ask the seemingly obvious question. “Whose experiment? why should the designer be served while the victim suffers?” The wishes of a man—the designer of the experiment—have become part of a schema which exerts on the subject’s mind a force that transcends the personal. “It’s got to go on. It’s got to go on,” repeated one subject He failed to realize that a man like himself wanted it to go on. For him the human agent had faded from the picture, and “The Experiment’ had acquired an impersonal momen­tum of its own,


The problem of obedience is not wholly psychological. The form and shape of society and the way it is developing have much to do with it There was a time, perhaps, when men were able to give a fully human response to any situation because they were fully absorbed in it as human beings. But as soon as there was a division of labor among men, things changed. Beyond a certain point, the breaking up of society into people carrying out narrow and very special jobs takes away from the human quality of work and life. A person does not get to see the whole situation but only a small partof it, and is thus unable to act without some kind of over-all direction. He yields to authority but in doing so is alienated from his own actions.


George Orwell caught the essence of the situation when he wrote:


As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me. They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them. They are only “doing their duty,” as the saying goes. Most of them, I have no doubt, are kind-hearted law abiding men who would never dream of committing murder in private life. On the other hand, if one of them succeeds in blowing me to pieces with a well-placed bomb, he will never sleep any the worse for it.

  1. What was the main purpose of Milgram's experiment?

  2. At what point in the experiment does the subject, or teacher, begin to experience conflict?

  3. There is only one way in which the subject can resolve this conflict. What is that way?

  4. What is the most important finding of Milgram's experiment?

  5. Explain the statement, "For him, the human agent had faded from the picture, and 'The Experiment' had acquired an impersonal momentum of its own."

  6. According to Milgram, obedience is not completely psychological. What other factor(s) lead to blind obedience of authority?

  7. In light of Milgram's findings, explain the significance of Orwell's quote at the end of the article.

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