Doing What You’re Told

The latest issue of the London Review of Books is now available, and Jenny Diski’s review of Thomas Blass’ The Man Who Shocked the World immediately caught my eye. The book is a biography of Stanley Milgram, the social psychologist who investigated the phenomenon of obedience to authority in the early sixties. Milgram found that a majority of people were willing to harm another individual when told to do so by a person of authority.

Each subject was told they were participating in a ‘Memory Project’, the aim of which was to study how people learn. They were ‘teachers’. In an adjoining room a ‘learner’ sat wired up to the shock machine. He had to repeat the second of pairs of words he was supposed to have learned. The ‘teacher’ cued with the first word. An incorrect answer was punished with an electric shock. With each wrong answer the ‘teacher’ was instructed to move up a switch. The learner, who was, of course, a member of Milgram’s team, could be heard but not seen, and as the switches were flipped, he began complaining until, at the higher voltages, he screamed in agony and begged the subject not to hurt him, demanding his right to be let out. In addition to hearing the pain they were inflicting, the subjects were told that the learner had a heart condition. Any reluctance was met by the experimenter saying in authoritative tones: ‘Please go on.’ After three prompts, the subject was told: ‘You have no choice, you must go on.’ If the subject refused after the fourth prompt, the experiment was stopped. In some of the variations, after the 300-volt shock the learner pounded on the wall, and then after 315 volts remained totally silent. Overall, 65 per cent of subjects were prepared to administer the 450-volt shock, not once, but several times. They sweated, they groaned, they queried, but when told they had to do it ‘for the experiment’, they flipped the switch.

Of course, looking back now, one can see some design flaws in the experiments–the fact that Milgram hired only male subjects, for one. But the topic is nonetheless fascinating, especially in light of recent events in Iraq, Sudan, and elsewhere. Definitely worth checking out.