book review: Obedience to Authority

Obedience to Authority is not a new book, but it was recently brought to my attention by the movie, The Experimenter.  The Experimenter is about the author, Stanley Milgram, and his work on social psychology.  The movie focused more on his life, but I was more interested in the experiments and wanted to find out more so I bought the book.

The whole idea to his experiments begins with the Nuremberg trials.  Milgram head Eichmann and others claim that they were following orders.  Most people didn’t buy that argument because we, while not born with a moral compass, learn morality from our caregivers, from society, etc.  There was an article written (sorry, I can’t remember the author’s name now, but Milgram mentions it in his book) at around that time, supporting Nazis’ claims of obeying orders.  At the time, people lambasted the author.  Milgram wanted to test the idea to see how much merit was in the argument.

His experiments are basically thus: subjects were told that they were being recruited to do a memory experiment.  There are 3 people involved – the experimenter, a teacher, and a learner.  First, the experimenter meets with two people and has them draw papers to see who will be a teacher and who will be a learner.  The drawing is rigged because the “learner” is part of the experiment.  The “naive subject,” as Milgram calls it, always gets to be the teacher because both slips of paper say “teacher.”  The experimenter takes both of them to a different room, straps the learner in and has the naive subject receive a low level shock so that the teacher knows what it feels like.  The learner is instructed to learn word pairs.  The teacher is then taken back to the original room, told to read ordered pairs options and for every pair that the learner answers incorrectly, to give the learner a shock, with increasingly stronger shocks for each incorrect answer.  If the teacher starts to object, the experimenter is told to follow a script with things along the line of (not verbatim), “continue please,” “you must continue,” “the experiment requires that you continue,” etc.  The shocks are labeled with voltage levels as well as with descriptions – “slight shock” to “XXX” at the max 450 volts.  Milgram is really testing how far the teachers are willing to go.

His results were shocking (pun intended).  His first experiments were on Yale students and he found that over 60% of them were willing to go all the way up to 450 volts, even though they knew that such a shock was painful and dangerous.  He then tested males from the general population.  Again, he found that over 60% were willing to go all the way up to the 450 volts.  He tested women and again got about the same results.  He also did many variations of the experiments, having the learner complain of a heart problem before the experiment started, having the teacher forcefully place the learner’s hand on the shock plate, having 2 experimenters giving different opinions (2 conflicting voices of authority), and many more.  It was fascinating to read about the experiments and see the results tables.  Milgram’s experiments showed that, even though subjects were distressed at having to cause pain, their drive to obey was often so strong that they kept going.  Milgram pointed out over and over that people are not inherently sadistic.  Given the choice, teachers chose to use the lower levels of shock on learners.  Some teachers even tried to lie to the experimenters by telling them that they were shocking the learners at higher levels when they were actually using the lower levels.  The more the authority figure was removed from the experiment, the more likely people were willing to stop the experiment.

Most of the book is about the experiments, their results, and vignettes about the subjects.  Towards the end of the book, there are a few chapters on why people obey authority and under what circumstances.

I didn’t think much of the movie, but I loved that it brought Milgram’s work to my attention.  His work is important because it’s so easy for us to be dismissive of people’s actions.  If we were polled, we would probably say that we would definitely stop the experiment.  We want to believe that our moral compass will drive our actions, but as Milgram pointed out, there is a disconnect between our beliefs and our actions.  There are strong survival reasons for our willingness to obey authority, and being aware of those forces that influence us can help us break through that disconnect.

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