A great deal of research suggests that most human beings, ordered to inflict pain on a stranger, will do so as long as the order comes from someone who seems to be in authority.

Landmark research in the field was done by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram, who in 1960 designed an experiment to test the limits of obedience. He recruited students from the university to take part in a pilot study, and in individual sessions they were told that they were participating in an experiment that would measure the effects of punishment on learning. Each participant was then directed to inflict a series of electric shocks on a "learner," increasing the intensity of the shocks with each wrong answer given.

Although the learner appeared to be just another volunteer, he was actually a confederate of Milgram's and received no shock at all. The setup, however, was very realistic. The instrument panel of the shock generator, for example, engraved by precision industrial engravers and bore a label from the fictional Dyson Instrument Company, Waltham, Mass. Each subject was given a sample shock of forty-five volts from the generator prior to beginning the test, a shock accomplished by depressing the third switch on the machine.

The students had no anger, no vindictiveness, and no hatred for the person they were shocking, nor would they have suffered any punishment for refusing to continue. Yet 60 percent of the students were fully obedient, applying shocks of 450 volts in spite of the label on the dial that said Danger: Severe Shock. One of Milgram's colleagues immediately dismissed the results, arguing that Yale undergraduates were an unrepresentative sample of humanity, that they were highly aggressive and would step on each other's necks given the slightest provocation.

Milgram then began refining the experiment. He thought that the lack of protest from the "victim" in the pilot studies had enabled the subjects to go blithely on in spite of the designated shocks on the dial. And so he worked out a series of pleas that the victim would utter at different levels of shock. He used newspaper ads to recruit subjects from outside the Yale community. He varied the distance between the learner and the teacher. He changed the location,and appearance of the testing site so that it did not carry the prestige of the university. And yet as long as an authority figure was present, people continued to obey. No severe training had taken place. No reward was in sight. No threat had been implied. No punishment was possible. The authority figure was a stranger and so was the victim.

In one variation of the experiment, the learner was placed in an adjacent room and began yelling at 120 Volts: "Get me out of here. I told you I had heart trouble. My heart's starting to bother me now. Get me out of here please. My heart's starting to bother me. I refuse to go on. Let me out." The cries grew more desperate as the shocks went on. At 270 volts, there was an agonized scream. At 315 volts, the learner yelled, "I told you I refuse to answer! I'm no longer part of this experiment!" At 330 volts there were hysterical pleas and a prolonged, intense, and agonized scream. Yet as long as an experimenter in a lab coat ordered the volunteer to continue whenever he or she questioned the procedure, 62 percent of the subjects continued to give shocks all the way to the end of the scale.

In his book Obedience to Authority, Milgram profiles some of the people who took part in the experiment. He calls one of them "Elinor Rosenblum, Housewife." Mrs. Rosenblum had graduated from the University of Wisconsin twenty years before she participated in the study and was married to a film distributor who had attended Dartmouth. "She does volunteer work with juvenile delinquents once a week and has been active in the local Girl Scout organization and the PTA," Milgram wrote. "She is fluent and garrulous and projects herself strongly, with many references to her social achievements. She displays a pleasant though excessively talkative charm."

At 195 volts, the victim --- a Yale actor --- began screaming about his heart. After 300 volts, no noise at all came from the actor, and he did not answer any of the other questions, conveying the impression that he was no longer conscious. Mrs. Rosenblum was troubled, but she continued up the scale, eventually giving the learner the 450-volt shock three times. Milgram observed that although she was muttering to herself, "I'm shaking here," her communication with the learner continued in the officious tone she had taken from the start. "It is almost as if she were two women," Milgram wrote, "one giving a competent public performance, and the other an inner, distressed woman unable to refrain from anxious utterances..."

Milgram's experiments showed virtually no difference in obedience rates between men and women. Aggressiveness did not seem to be a major factor: in one variation, subjects were given license to engage in unchecked aggression, being allowed to choose the shock levels to administer to the learner. Only two subjects administered more than 150 volts (one administered 375 volts, and the other delivered the maximum 450).

Obedience decreased as the subject came into close proximity with the victim, but still a stunning percentage were compliant. Milgram designed one variation so that the victim was shocked only when he had his hand on a shock plate. At 150 volts, the learner refused to place his hand on the plate, and the experimenter ordered the subject to hold the victim's hand on the plate. Twelve of forty subjects --- 30 percent --- forcibly held the victim's hand in place and continued to administer shocks up to the maximum 450 volts.

More depressing still were the results achieved in a variation in which subjects read the questions while another person (a second confederate of the experimenter) had responsibility for depressing the shock levers: thirty-seven of forty adults from the New Haven area continued to the highest level on the shock generator.

"Predictably, subjects excused their behavior by saying that the responsibility belonged to the man who actually pulled the switch," Milgram wrote. "It is psychologically easy to ignore responsibility when one is only an intermediate link in a chain of evil action but is far from the final consequences of the action. Even Eichmann was sickened when he toured the concentration camps, but to participate in mass murder he had only to sit at a desk and shuffle papers. At the same time the man in the camp who actually dropped Cyclon-B into the gas chambers was able to justify his behavior on the grounds that he was only following orders from above.... The person who assumes full responsibility for the act has evaporated."

Milgram observed his subjects deploying a variety of mechanisms to deal with the strain of what they were doing. Some withdrew their attention from the victim, becoming immersed in the procedures, reading the word pairs with exquisite articulation and pressing the switches with great care. Some raised their voices to drown out the victim's protests. Some turned away into awkward positions in order to avoid seeing the learner suffer. Some administered only the briefest of shocks, depressing the levers for 50 milliseconds, thereby "asserting their humanity." Others engaged in subtle subterfuge, trying to tip the learner off to the right answer by emphasizing it as they read. The learner, however, never picked up on the cue. "The subject is unable to act openly on his humane feelings, deflecting them into a trivial subterfuge of no real consequence," Milgram observed. "Yet 'doing something,' even if of only token significance, helps preserve his self-image as a benign man."

Milgram noted that some who expressed disagreement during the course of the experiment nonetheless continued, and it seemed to him that the dissent served different functions in different individuals. For some, it was the first step toward total refusal to continue. For others it was merely a way to reduce the strain of the experiment --- they did not alter their course of action. Having established a positive self-image as one opposed to the continuation of the experiment, the person more comfortably continued shocking the victim...

During the course of the variations of his experiment, Milgram saw several hundred participants. "With numbing regularity good people were seen to knuckle under to the demands of authority and perform actions that were callous and severe," he wrote. "Men who are in everyday life responsible and decent were seduced by the trappings of authority, by the control of their perceptions, and by the uncritical acceptance of the experiment's definition of the situation into performing harsh acts....

"This is perhaps the most fundamental lesson of our study: ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process." Milgram went on to conclude that many people are unable to act on their values, that even when it is patently clear that they are inflicting harm, relatively few people have the resources to resist authority.

--- From Unspeakable Acts,
Ordinary People:
The Dynamics of Torture,

©2000 John Conroy (Knopf)

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