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Milgram’s obedience experiment 50 years on: the banality of evil, or working towards the Führer?

Stanley Milgram and his 'shock generator' machine

Stanley Milgram and his 'shock generator' machine

Almost exactly 50 years ago, the social psychologist Stanley Milgram embarked on a programme of research that was to change our understanding of the human propensity for evil forever. Participants in the research came into his laboratory at Yale for what they thought was a study looking at the effects of punishment on memory. Does a person learn better if they are punished every time they make a mistake?

To help the experimenter investigate this question, participants were placed in the role of teacher and asked to administer an electric shock to a learner every time he recalled the wrong word from a previously learned list of work pairings. The shocks started at 15 volts but increased every time an error was made, going right up to 450 volts — well beyond a point that would be lethal.

In fact, the learner was an actor who was an accomplice of Milgram and the shocks were not real. But the teachers did not know this. Indeed, the question that Milgram was really investigating was how willing the participants would be to go along with the experimenter’s instructions. Would they stop administering shocks at 75 volts (when the learner let out a cry of “Ugh!”) or 150 volts (where he demanded to be let out, because his heart was starting to bother him), or at 300 volts (where he let out an agonized scream and refused to answer any more)? Thinking about it, how far would you go?

As every student who has just completed their psychology A-level knows, around 10% of participants in Milgram’s baseline study stopped at the 300-volt mark. (90% continued beyond this point. Indeed, a full 65% continued administering shocks right up to the 450-volt point. In other words, they displayed total obedience.)

Milgram’s research is phenomenally important because it shows that normal decent people can engage in acts of extreme cruelty when they are instructed to do so by others. When psychiatrists and members of the public were asked what proportion of people would go to the 450-volt mark they tend to say something like 1% — assuming that only a sadist or a psychopath would go this far. In this, Milgram saw his studies as supporting Hannah Arendt’s notion of the “banality of evil” — a concept developed upon observing the trial of the architect of the Nazi’s “final solution”, Adolf Eichmann. This suggests that terrible events like the Holocaust might occur because people were concerned more to do their bureaucratic duty than to question the ends towards which that bureaucracy was working.

Milgram’s empirical contribution is as important today as it ever was. Recently, though, historians and psychologists have started to question whether his work has been correctly interpreted. In this regard, in my research with Steve Reicher at the University of St Andrews we have argued that participants’ identification with the experimenter and with Milgram’s scientific project was central to their willingness to administer shocks to the learner.

Rather than simply obeying orders, participants were thus “working towards the experimenter” — working creatively to do what they thought was right with reference to an identity that centred on their belief in the value of science. This process mirrors that of “working towards the Führer” which the historian Ian Kershaw argues explains the dynamism of the Nazi state and the brutality displayed by its functionaries.

All in all, this new understanding suggests that decent people participate in horrific acts not because they are mindless functionaries who do not know what they are doing, but rather because they come to believe — typically under the influence of those in authority — that what they are doing is right. In these terms, the Milgram studies are not about obedience but about leadership. The key question they throw up is not why participants show blind obedience (they don’t) but why they identify with the authority (the experimenter) rather than with the victim, and hence are willing to follow him down the destructive path he sketches out.

Of course, this same question is sadly pertinent to an array of atrocities we see in the world today: the abuse of detainees in Abu Ghraib, genocide in Darfur, phone hacking in News International. In all these case, followers proved willing to work towards their leaders not because they were thoughtlessly obeying their orders but because they were responding creatively to the goals of a leadership with which they identified. In all these cases the search for precise orders proves futile, and rather misses the point that brutalising regimes are advanced by engaged followers, not passive zombies. The source of evil is not in the banal workings of passionless bureaucracy, but in the delineated content of a shared identity (a sense of ‘us’ that has no place for ‘them’), which empowers leaders and mobilises followers.

Posted by Professor Alex Haslam (Professor of Social and Organisational Psychology)