Each of us is programmed to obey authority, even if that authority commands us to do evil.
That was the controversial finding of a series of psychological experiments done in the 1960s, now known collectively as the Milgram Experiment. While Milgram watched from afar, one of his assistants, dressed up in a light grey lab coat, asked people who’d volunteered for the experiment to quiz a complete stranger. Each time the stranger got a wrong answer, the quizzer was told to shock them with an increasing amount of electricity.
A new film called “Experimenter,” which premieres Friday, explores Milgram’s now-famous work. But it also sheds light on some crucial parts of the experiment that Milgram ignored.
And those missing parts tell another story about human nature that’s more complex than the one Milgram chose to tell.
As the film shows, even when the person getting shocked shouted out in pain, the people giving the shocks continued to deliver them – just as they were told to do.
But some people didn’t go through with it. They refused and left.
And many others paused, hesitated, or protested before they carried out their orders. That’s a crucial part of the experiment that Milgram left out, according to dozens of psychologists who’ve since critiqued Milgram’s work.
Because while many people did simply follow orders – even when what they were doing appeared to be causing direct harm to an innocent stranger – many people did not. Across the studies as a whole, in fact, a majority of participants chose not to see the experiment through to the end. They objected and flat-out refused, contrary to their orders.
Psychologists are by no means unified on what the actions of those objectors mean for the experiment as a whole. But they have some ideas.
For one thing, it’s possible that what ultimately drove people to either go through with the experiment or not wasn’t whether they felt the experiment was right or wrong, per se, but which side of it they identified with more strongly. Did they identify with the person giving them the orders, the “cause” of the experiment itself, or did they identify with the person getting shocked, the random sufferer?
“The Milgram studies seem to be less about people blindly conforming to orders than about getting people to believe in the importance of what they are doing,” writes Alex Haslam, a psychology professor at the University of Queensland in Australia and co-editor of a special issue of the Journal of Social Issues which focuses on Milgram’s legacy.
For another, the decision is by no means an easy one for any of the participants.
“They are torn between two voices confronting them with irreconcilable moral imperatives, and the fact that they have to choose between them is a source of considerable anguish,” Haslam writes.
Before they decide to either continue with the shocks or refuse, the participants get incredibly tense, as the film captures well:
But even though most of them resist at first, especially when the lab assistant says, “The experiment requires that you continue,” many stop altogether, in particular when he says, “You have no other choice, you must go on.”
Here’s Haslam describing the situation the participants went through in detail in his paper:
“They sweat, they laugh, they try to talk and argue their way out of the situation. But the experimental set-up does not allow them to do so. Ultimately, they tend to go along with the Experimenter if he justifies their actions in terms of the scientific benefits of the study (as he does with the prod “The experiment requires that you continue”). But if he gives them a direct order (“You have no other choice, you must go on”) participants typically refuse.”
During his first sets of experiments, carried out in a tiny room at Yale, almost all of the subjects carried out the shocks from start to finish – despite the sounds of pain from the person they were shocking (which they later found out were prerecorded and played as part of the experimental hoax.)
But in later iterations of those experiments, where Milgram and his team played with the setting of the lab by making it seem less official (i.e. changing the setting of the office from a neat office at Yale to a room in a decrepit building on the periphery of the city), the results were much more varied. Rather than 100% of the participants completing the experiment from start to finish, close to no one did. Everyone who had been asked to administer the shocks protested, gave up, or simply refused to continue.
So no, not everyone Milgram subjected to his experiment simply give into following directions, even when those directions were clearly causing an innocent person harm.
Instead, most of them put up a fight, and many deserted.