In Praise of Stanley Milgram

To some psychologists, Milgram’s experiments were unethical, but giving painful electric shocks to people in the name of science sounds fun – and it is.

h3To me, he was a genius. He proved what I already knew to be true from my schooldays, and I would sincerely enjoy the opportunity of repeating the experiments. [Actually someone did, but they repeated the experiment and used a puppy instead of an actor; again, the result was that about 70% of people gave the full dose of very painful electricity.] My own gut feeling however (backed up by experience of the modern world) is that if the tests were repeated today, the results would not be nearly as high. The reason? People in 2006 are simply not as blindly obedient as they were in the 1950’s – they have an increasing awareness of ethical behaviour and an increased ability to question, and I think more volunteers would refuse to go the full way. We have had more than half a century to consider the true implications of the time-honoured phrase “I vas only obeying orders.”

The famous psychologist Solomon Asch rounded up some volunteers for an experiment which was ostensibly to do with visual perception. They were asked to judge the length of lines and say which two in the set matched together. Unknown to the volunteers, all the other participants in the group were in on the joke, er… sorry, experiment, and deliberately chose the same wrong answers as each other every time the test was run. The result was that the genuine volunteers reported feelings of stress and embarrassment because they felt like the odd one out. They became increasingly worried about giving the wrong answer and the vast majority ended up going with whatever the rest of the group said was the right answer. This is a great example of the Social Compliance theory much vaunted by some psychologists and has shades of Stanley Milgram’s experiments in the late 1950’s.

Milgram has serious implications for the flight deck – the worst air disaster in history (to date) was the result of an overbearing KLM captain disregarding a question from his flight engineer as to whether or not they actually had clearance to take off, and who then did not dare question him a second time in the fog at Tenerife. As a consequence, the KLM Jumbo jet collided with a Pan-Am Jumbo jet that was still crossing the runway. Another example would be Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed expedition to the South Pole. Scott ignored the advice proffered by more experienced polar explorers, including that of Amundsen, who came first. He also ignored the advice of his own men, who because of the social hierarchy of the day, dared not press the point and as a result, they all froze to death. Interesting to note also that the British were able to put a spin on the whole debacle (suggestion) and Scott emerged a hero, albeit a dead one, and not the incompetent, egotistical fuckwit he actually was.

For more information about the theory and practice concerned with obedience, authority, hierarchy and a couple of great fun experiments, read All in the Mind – Hypnosis, Suggestion and the New Mesmerists. Available as an Instant PDF Download

Copyright Andrew Newton 2013. All rights reserved.