Milgram’s 65

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November 29, 2012 by bradcharlesbeals

shockThere was a story in the news recently of a man who drowned himself in the San Francisco bay. Sadly, there’s nothing newsworthy about suicide. It happens all the time. The reason the story went national is that people there knew what was happening before it happened. They called the authorities, who quickly arrived at the scene. And then everyone–bystanders and first-responders alike–stood on the beach and watched him drown. 

It wasn’t that the water was too deep or moving too fast or dangerously cold. It was a beach . . . in San Francisco. They watched him die because due to recent budget cuts, going into the water to rescue someone “wasn’t policy.” So when those in uniform didn’t respond, neither did anyone else. They were all deferring to an authority (albeit the wrong ones–official policy, uniforms), so they all did nothing but watch.

We’re all under authority, many authorities in fact. As I read the story, I thought of this. I also thought of a Peter Gabriel song and something haunting I learned in Mr. Sparling’s high-school psych class…

In 1961, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram was trying to make sense of Nazi Germany and the Jewish Holocaust and human nature and all that, something a lot of people in the social sciences were doing in the years following WWII. One of the questions he was asking himself was whether the people most directly involved in the events shared some dark moral illness or was there something in the authority structure that would explain how such things could happen? So he began a series of experiments testing human subjects’ responses to authority.

Here’s how his experiment worked: There were two groups of participants–“teachers” and “learners.” The “teachers” were the oblivious volunteers, the true subjects of the experiment. The “learners” were actors paid by Milgram to do what actors do–to be convincing. Before they were divided into their two groups, they supposedly drew lots, slips of paper, for those roles. But all the slips said, “teacher,” so the volunteers didn’t know this was a blinded experiment and that all the “learners” would be acting their parts.

The groups were then paired off and separated so that each teacher and learner worked in different rooms with a wall between them. They couldn’t see one another and communicated only through a one-way intercom through which the teacher could speak, and a push-button display through which the learner could respond. 

They were then given a task which involved learning word pairs. The teacher would first read to the learner the entire list of word pairs. The teacher would then read the first word of a pair and four possible answers for the second word. If the learner got the second word wrong, the teacher would be instructed, by someone in a white lab coat holding a clipboard, to remotely administer an electric shock to the learner (before the experiment began, the teacher would be given a real sample from a shock generator–that way he or she knew what was at stake.). The shock administered to the learner was fake, of course, but the teacher didn’t know that, and the learner would do the appropriate acting to express pain based on the supposed voltage. 

Milgram designed the experiment so that the “voltage” would increase by 15-volt increments for each wrong answer. And with each wrong answer the learner’s performance would rise accordingly–screams of pain, shouts for the experiment to stop, pleadings that their “heart condition” might kill them. The climax of the learner’s performance would involve banging on the walls for the teacher to stop, and then silence–no response at all to the shock generator, as though the learner had gone unconscious or even died from the shocks.  

All the while, white-lab-coat guy is standing over the teacher, prodding him to push ahead. And all the while, the teacher really believes that he is shocking the learner in the other room.  

At any time, if the subject (the volunteer “teacher”) expressed a desire to stop the experiment, a series of prompts would be given by the authority until the teacher either continued or insisted on stopping. 

The prompts went like this:

  • Please continue.
  • The experiment requires that you continue.
  • It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  • You have no other choice, you must go on.

If, after all four prompts, the teacher still wanted to stop the experiment, it would be halted. Otherwise, it didn’t stop until the teacher had given the learner the maximum 450-volt shock three times in succession.

But here’s where things got scary. Before any of these experiments had been run, Milgram polled 14 Yale senior-year psych majors to predict the behavior of 100 hypothetical “teachers.” All those polled believed that only a small number of the teachers would inflict the maximum voltage. The poll results were between 0 and 3 out of 100, an average of 1.2. Milgram also informally polled his colleagues and found similar results. And since then, countless psych teachers in high schools and colleges have introduced these experiments and polled their own kids before revealing Milgram’s results. The predictions are consistent. Most people believe that most of the subjects will stop the experiment before it gets out of hand. 

Here’s what Milgram actually found: it wasn’t 1.2% of the participants who went all the way to the maximum voltage, but 65%! 65% of the teacher participants–the blinded volunteers–reached the final, massive 450-volt shock. Despite the fact that they believed their learners were in great pain, despite believing that their actions might even be causing severe injury to another human being, almost two thirds continued to follow the instructions of the authorities and administer the shocks. And these weren’t folks who were employed by the authority or who had pledged themselves somehow to follow the authority or who had guns at pointed at their heads; they were just in the same room with a guy from Yale wearing a white lab coat.

And that was authority enough. 

The experiments have been repeated since then with much the same results. Not surprisingly, the 65% diminishes as intimacy between teacher and learner is increased. Two-way voice communication drops the rate substantially. Removing the physical barrier between the two results in an even more dramatic drop. After all, it’s hard to cause pain to someone you’re looking at eye-to-eye. But these just illustrate both our pathetic ability to see what is true and our misplaced trust in feelings as our guide to right behavior. The Yale psych majors and Milgram’s colleagues got it way wrong, and they were shocked by their own ignorance. But then, faith in humanity–humanism–always disappoints. 

There is one group, though, who shouldn’t be shocked, because their teaching predicts exactly what Milgram “discovered.” The Christian who looks into God’s word, who understands that our depravity is beyond understanding not only can expect results like these but should. Only the Christian faith teaches that we are so hopeless that we must be saved from ourselves by someone outside of ourselves. By that light, Milgram’s results aren’t a surprise, they’re evidence of the depravity of man, and without the Christian worldview, events like the Holocaust must go unexplained and must be repeated.  

All authority belongs to Christ, so all people will (now or at some point in their future) submit to God’s word. Under God’s word men don’t torture others because a man with a clipboard says to, and men don’t withhold help from others as they drown. But for the humanist, and for the complicit bystander, “it’s policy” is authority enough.


“We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)”
by Peter Gabriel

we do what we’re told
we do what we’re told
we do what we’re told
told to do

we do what we’re told
we do what we’re told
we do what we’re told
told to do

one doubt
one voice
one war
one truth
one dream


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