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The Sociology of Not Being Cruel, According to the Infamous Milgram Experiments

Reconsidering a famous study that seemed to say that we are all really just monsters, at least in the face of authoritarianism.

by Michael Byrne
Jan 10 2015, 9:37pm

One of the most damning experiments ever to probe humanity's "dark side," the infamous work of psychologist Stanley Milgram, has a new interpretation, courtesy of sociologists at the University of Wisconsin. The group, led by graduate researcher Matthew Hollander, argues that within Milgram's results, which show an alarming willingness of everyday people to administer torture when commanded, we can find a new strategy for resisting just that dark side. Ethics can trump authority.

Even 50 years and many reconsiderations later, the Milgram experiments remain legendary for their bleak demonstration of humankind's latent potential to be monstrous in the face of authoritarianism. Conducted in 1961, after 15 post-Holocaust years of asking how?, Milgram's investigations offered the conclusion that we are all innately cruel, or at least open to inflicting cruelty given the right prompting/stimulus.

As humans, our goodness is only provisional.

The gist of the experiments went like this: subjects was told that they were to "teach" what they believed to be another random subject a series of word pairings. To assist in the task, the "teachers" had a certain button. When a wrong answer was given, the participant/subject pressed the button, which they were made to believe administered a shock to the learner. Every wrong answer demanded a shock of increasing voltage.

Despite the audible pleas of the learner (an actor), who not only begged for the teacher to stop but complained of a dangerous heart condition, the teachers often continued shocking the learners, until finally the other room went quiet entirely. There was one other key component: the study's administrator, who offered harsh prompting to the teacher to continue the shocks no matter how much the learner begged or pleaded. "You have no other choice, you must go on," the teachers were ordered.

Image: Wiki

Sixty-five percent of the participants went as far as to administer the final series of three 450 volt shocks to the learner. That figure has remained remarkably constant through ​many, many mostly successful attempts at reproducing Milgram's results

"Stark authority was pitted against the subjects' [participants'] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects' [participants'] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not," Milgram wrote in a 1974 paper. "The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation."

"Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process," the psychologist continued. "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."

Hollander's argument is that Milgram didn't allow for enough nuance in the participants' responses, dividing them only into "compliant" and "noncompliant" groups. Hollander closely examined the responses (given via audio recordings of the experiment) of 117 of the Milgram study's participants. What they found were six distinct ways in which subjects resisted the authority of the experiment's administrator (who was commanding them to give the shocks). They fought back.

"The majority did cave, and follow the experimenter's orders," Hollander explained in a statement. "But a good number of people resisted, and I've found particular ways they did that, including ways of resisting that they share with the people who ultimately complied."

These methods include basic stalling strategies, like talking to the learner or the administrator, but the most profound strategy participants used is what Hollander calls the "stop try." This is basically where they said something like "I can't do this anymore" or "I won't do this anymore." Which in itself isn't very interesting or unexpected, but what Hollander found is that participants who were ultimately obedient did so only after employing a suite of resistance strategies. "Willing" is maybe not the right word after all.

They don't resist as much or as well as the disobedient participants, of course, but Hollander argues that these differences could be key to crafting more general strategies for standing up to authority and preventing illegal or unethical behavior. The difference could be between a whistleblower and a head-down follower. We don't have to shock each other to death after all, no matter the authoritarian pressure.

"It doesn't have to be the Nazis or torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq or in the CIA interrogations described in the recent U.S. Senate report," adds Douglas Maynard, a UW sociology professor. "Think of the pilot and copilot in a plane experiencing an emergency or a school principal telling a teacher to discipline a student, and the difference it could make if the subordinate could be respectfully, effectively resistive and even disobedient when ethically necessary or for purposes of social justice."