May 7, 2008

First Person Account Of The Milgram Experiment


An article written by one of the test subjects in the Milgram experiments, and his explanation for why it happened the way it did.

He's wrong.

First, if you do not know the experiment (video): a "learner" would be strapped to a chair in the next room-- so they could be heard, but not seen-- and would be asked to remember words from a pair.  If he got it wrong, the professor would tell the tester to operate a machine that would remotely administer electric shocks.

In reality, the thing was staged; it was really an experiment to see if the tester would submit to authority: "please continue administering  the shocks."

Most "testers" continued to shock as long as the professor told them to, even though they could hear the learner howling in horrible pain.  Perhaps they thought the scientist had some safeguards from actual death, who knows.  But the results show that people are sheep given the right power structure.

This article is by one who refused to continue giving shocks.  His reasons for stopping are interesting:

In retrospect, I believe that my upbringing in a socialist-oriented family steeped in a class struggle view of society taught me that authorities would often have a different view of right and wrong than mine.
He goes on to detail the origins of a default suspiciousness of authority:

Like all soldiers [in WWII], I was taught to obey orders, but whenever we heard lectures on army regulations, what stayed with me was that we were also told that soldiers had a right to refuse illegal orders (though what constituted illegal was left vague).
and his battles with the government:

In the early 1950s, I [the Chairman of the New Haven Communist Party] was harassed and tailed by the FBI, and in 1954, along with other leaders of the Communist Party in Connecticut, I was arrested and tried under the Smith Act on charges of "conspiracy to teach and advocate the overthrow of the government by force and violence." ... I believe these experiences also enabled me to stand up to an authoritative "professor."

I have a personal bias against communism, so I'm skeptical of this answer.  By invoking communism/socialism, he is implying that he has a higher sense of rightness than others might, and some attachment to the common man that made him not want to proceed with hurting the guy on the other end of the shocks.  Before you read further, read his quotes again and see if you agree with my assessment.

But here's why he refused:

...[the professor]  insisted that I continue [giving shocks.]  I refused, offered to give him back the five dollars, and told him that I believed the experiment to be really about how far I would go, that the learner was an accomplice, and that I was determined not to continue.

He didn't stop because of moral courage; he stopped because he thought he was being played.

The distinction is extremely important.  His life experiences didn't make him strong against  against authority, but to be suspicious that authority is an authority.   He stopped not because the other person was being shocked-- what he cared about was being manipulated.

And so again, narcissism, though in this case resulting in a "healthy" outcome because it heightened his perception of games and manipulation.

I'm not criticizing this man-- what he did in this experiment isn't generalizable to other  circumstances precisely because he thought it wasn't real.

A more interesting question would be how much further he would have gone if he didn't think it was a trick; when would moral courage as opposed to indignation have taken over? 

Let's be clear that there is a difference between not playing because you think it's rigged, and playing despite it being rigged, doing the best you can anyway, because that is what life is...


OK, that's kind of dumb. Th... (Below threshold)

May 7, 2008 6:37 PM | Posted by alsomike: | Reply

OK, that's kind of dumb. The article is titled "Resisting Authority" and the major points are about -- surprise! -- resisting authority, not about empathy. Even so, its obvious that the guy stopped shocking the learner because he was in pain and asked to stop. So the issue of resisting authority only came up at all in the context of being ordered to violate his sense of empathy with the learner.

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I'm no fan of communists, e... (Below threshold)

May 7, 2008 6:45 PM | Posted by Jim Lipsey: | Reply

I'm no fan of communists, either, but aren't the two explanations reconcilable? His past experiences instilled a suspicion of authority, which caused him to question the researcher's motives, leading him to figure out the nature of the experiment. He then had the gumption to stand up to Milgram.

This makes me wonder, though. Could a significant portion of Milgram's subjects have figured out what was going on, but went along with the charade simply for fear of confrontation?

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I wouldn't put much stock i... (Below threshold)

May 7, 2008 7:40 PM | Posted by dr x: | Reply

I wouldn't put much stock in his recollections of how it actually went down and what his thoughts were after so many years of reconstructive memory maintenance.

Let's take this statement:

"...[the professor] insisted that I continue [giving shocks.] I refused, offered to give him back the five dollars, and told him that I believed the experiment to be really about how far I would go, that the learner was an accomplice, and that I was determined not to continue."

It's quite possible that he neither said nor thought any such thing at the time and that this recollection was constructed after the fact, after learning about how the experiment worked. Really, because of the unreliability of memory, his recollections of how or why he defied the experimenter are of little or no practical value. What could be of more help is film of his interaction with the "professor" including a debriefing immediately after the trial with him was conluded. I presume this doesn't exist.

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Um. The last paragraph does... (Below threshold)

May 8, 2008 12:42 AM | Posted by Rose: | Reply

Um. The last paragraph doesn't flow naturally from the rest of the post. A Typepad error, or did I miss something? There's usually some transition between your cynicism and romanticism.

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Good point. People HATE get... (Below threshold)

May 8, 2008 3:04 AM | Posted by Ronnie: | Reply

Good point. People HATE getting played. (But love watching Candid Camera.)

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dr. X's post actually meshe... (Below threshold)

May 8, 2008 11:28 AM | Posted by XON: | Reply

dr. X's post actually meshes with the other experiment where one person was given $10 and told to divide it with a second, unidentified person. If that second person accepted, the participants split the proceeds per the first's scheme. If the second person didn't accept, neither got anything.

The economic analysis says that it's irrational to reject any offer, but that has never sat well with me. In the experiment, if the split went below about $3, the odds of rejection went way up. I think that the reason is that the second person, offered less than $3, expanded their analysis to a point where they realized that the first person was despising the inherent human value of the second person, and rejected as a retaliation.

My point is that, at a certain point, whether rationally or not, humans 'get' that they are being de-humanized, and react. Most people do this unconsciously, or at least un-calculatedly; but most seem to do it. If that's narcissism (and I think this problematizes the basic assertions of TLP a little bit), then it's certainly not unusual, nor, it would seem, inherently negative.

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Thanks,Doc.Enjoyed the disc... (Below threshold)

May 8, 2008 12:24 PM | Posted by Diane Abus: | Reply

Thanks,Doc.Enjoyed the discussion as ever.Rock On.

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Alone's response: I run... (Below threshold)

May 8, 2008 12:39 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Alone's response: I run into this problem a lot. I am not judging him as a "narcissist" i.e. I am not saying he is a bad person. Narcissism itself is not negative. Narcissism doesn't mean you think you're better than everyone, it describes the way in which you interpret interactions-- how they impact you. So here, this guy doesn't have an internal obedience to authority not because he thinks he is better than the professor, but because he doesn't recognize authority as anything more than arbitrary.

In this case, the narcissism is healthy. It could prevent you from blindly obeying authority, but in this specific case the power it gave this guy was to "smell" a game: he is so used to interpreting situations as being about him, that he is hypersensitive to situations which are actually about him.

So, to Jim, the man's explanation of communist affiliations as why he resisted authority is only partially right-- it certainly explains why he could have resisted authority, but in this specific case it really explains why he was able to detect the game. Whether or not he actually resists authority is still not tested.

To your second point, if you watch the video, it doesn't lok like anyone knew it was a game. However, if they did, but went on with it anyway, it still supports Milgram's story.

BTW, is it true Milgram and Zimbardo were high school classmates?

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I agree"But let's be... (Below threshold)

May 9, 2008 10:44 AM | Posted by mark p.s.: | Reply

I agree
"But let's be clear that there is a difference between not playing because you think it's rigged, and playing despite it being rigged, doing the best you can anyway, because that is what life is..."

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Thats an interesting questi... (Below threshold)

May 10, 2008 12:50 PM | Posted by AK: | Reply

Thats an interesting question. Does someone have the ability to question unjust authority in all situations? Or would a person only question authority in some situations but not others?

My lefto friends would question police authority but kept themselves in line following their own group norms.

Dunno if this helps. I am vulnerable to my own recollections here. Thirty five years ago, my parents had guests. I found out that one of them had been in Vienna during the Nazi take over, but despite his being Jewish, had escaped.

I asked him how he got out. Too many Viennese Jews had made the mistake of waiting too long, and either ended up in extermination camps or had to take refuge in places that accepted stateless persons, such as China. (This man's wife was from a family that fled from Vienna and sat out the war in Shanghai)

I regret I cannot remember this gentleman's name--for he deserves to be remembered.

Here is what led to his decision to leave Vienna. It followed his refusal to obey Nazi authority.

One day, X was rounded up in a street sweep. The police saw from his ID paper that he was Jewish and took him and all the other Jewish detainees to a large building.

X and other young men were handed clubs. X was ordered to beat an old man to death. It was either that or be killed.

X told us, he held that club, looked this frail man and (this is my recollection) he simply found it unbearable to imagine doing such a thing to another person. He decided he would rather die.

So X told us he put the club down. I dont recall if he told the officer, 'I wont do it.' Maybe he said nothing and just walked away. But...X kept walking and kept walking, expecting any moment to find himself felled by a bullet or club.

He kept on walking and one stopped him.

X kept moving, left the building. He knew not to return home, and instead managed to find some people with the right connections. Perhaps he had already been in the process of arranging to leave Vienna before his arrest.

In any case, he was on the train that night and managed to reach Portugal, and then somehow made it to the US.

So...he didnt stay and beg for the old man's life, and possibly he didnt even say a word of rebellion to the guy giving the order. But...if I remember X's story, he did say it was some kind of inner pain, inner rebellion that led him to put that club down and refuse to kill another human being.

If you have empathy hard wired into you, then you are more likely to refuse to obey not Authority, but Cruel Authority.

Then it wont matter if the authority is right wing, left wing, etc.

Is this cruelty or not?

Does it make my heart rebel, and give me a feeling of utter, visceral grief imaginging doing such a thing?

I think this is the real question.

The hard thing is today, the orders we are invited to follow are not dramatic, as designed by Milgram, Zimbardo, or the Nazis.

These are orders to commit acts of micro-cruelty, acts of dissociating from the humanity and presence of others. The slow drip drip drip of refusing to pay attention, refusing to feel.

That's the moral hazard of modern life--the lack of clear cut drama and bracketing in the moral choices that actually do confront us.

And I say this as one who flunks this every time I pretend pandhandlers dont exist--and walk on by.

Dissociating from the human condition when I could be present. I think lots of us are doing this and it feels normal.

We need some social psychology done to investigate how many of us succumb to the temptation to dissociate/numb out vs. being present, even when it hurts to be present.

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Alone's response:... (Below threshold)

May 12, 2008 8:49 AM | Posted by happier by the minute: | Reply

Alone's response: I run into this problem a lot. I am not judging him as a "narcissist" i.e. I am not saying he is a bad person. Narcissism itself is not negative.

Narcissism is a pathology, the most dangerous and contemptible disease of all---indeed, it's THE pathology of our times, peeking out from every bed, like communism, DESTROYING OUR CULTURE and bringing about FEUDALISM.

But I'm not saying the label is pejorative or anything.

It's just a neutral scientific term which implies no judgment. It can mean "autonomy" or "self-interested cognition" or "simple self-assertion" or "self-protective behavior," it can mean pretty much any damn thing so long as there's self-reference of some kind, or it can mean "cultural evil and the end of all life on the planet," depending on my mood. Wait, let me think this through, because I want to imply that all of those formers lead inexorably to the latter, like gateway drugs. Maybe---even though it's such an essentialist category---you could consider narcissism as a kind of spectrum. A-a-and, like the pharmaceutical companies, we need to pay special attention to subthreshold cases that will destroy our culture if you don't keep an eye on them! Because they're all dangerous. Not that calling someone a narcissist is pejorative, mind you.

I have this problem all the time. Lazy readers fail to understand my nuances.

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Narcissism has sever... (Below threshold)

May 12, 2008 1:04 PM | Posted by I see you're blocking my posts now: | Reply

Narcissism has several specific defining characteristics, which Lastie has explained in great and careful detail (see here, for example). So let's be clear about what he's saying about the guy who wrote the Milgram article:

--He is an authoritarian and a hypocrite. He cannot conceive of right and wrong, only right and wrong *for him.*
--He is not capable of empathy, since he does not recognize the otherness of other people. He always "reduces everyone else to a type as regards himself," and requires "all other people to supplement his identity."
--He will respond with rage to a slight, not with any other emotion, and this rage is likely to be murderous, whether or not he acts on it.
--He is not capable of feeling guilt, only shame.
--"If you can imagine a 40 year old man with the ego of a 2 year old, you've got a narcissist." So we imagine the author of this piece to have the emotional life of a two-year-old.
--We know about his fashion sense! "A narcissist looks the same every day; he has a 'look' with a defining characteristic: a certain haircut; a mustache; a type of clothing, a tatoo."

That's a lot of insight to dredge out of a few paragraphs! I didn't see any of that in the essay. Remember when Frist diagnosed Terry Schiavo from a snippet of video? Lastie's way smarter. He doesn't even need a video, just an essay or an API news item--especially if it's by a self-described "leftist." He can see right to the bottom of the fucker's soul!

Keep in mind that this is what Lastie is implying whenever he invokes "narcissism." This is his definition of the term. Here are a few of the people he's used the label on: men who have less libido than their wives, soliders, liberals, journalists, suicidal patients--pretty much anyone who doesn't live up to the terms of his teenage existentialist machismo. Notice particularly that he's used it to describe the academics whose research he criticizes (paragraph 11). It's not that they're simply lazy, or that they rationalize their privileges, or that their behavior is determined by class and proximal reward, like everybody else on the planet. No, it's narcissism. They have a pathology. So he's saying that at no point in their lives have any of these academics, in a boozy moment at a bar, confessed that they feel sad, or feel like a fraud, or feel guilty about how they behaved toward someone, or had some similarly humanizing emotion. He's saying they're subhuman, untermenschen. Got it? That's what is implied when he starts playing the "narcissism" card, however much he tries to finesse it by distinguishing "malignant" from "nonmalignant" varieties, whatever the hell that means.

Not that he means anything pejorative by it.

Okay then. Just so we're clear about the terms of sub-Nietzschean namecalling. Carry on!

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On choice:AK's post ... (Below threshold)

May 29, 2008 2:48 PM | Posted by Dr. LRWM: | Reply

On choice:
AK's post reminded me of the very first hospital patient I had when I started my psychiatric training as a new immigrant doctor in Israel.
When still a teenager this woman was taken to a Nazi work camp together with her best girl friend. There, next to a chlorine vat, she was ordered one day to either force her friend's head into the vat and drown her, or else have the dogs thrown at her (i.e. the patient).
Her choice of her own life stayed with her as a curse for the rest of her lifetime.
At the time, the only reference I could think of to try and find some logical way to think of this inhuman constellation was that known as the Hegelian "vel". When a robber says "your money or your life", this is a special kind of assymmetrical "or" . If you choose your money you loose both life and money, and if you choose your life you are left with your life without the money. This is not the same life you had before.
On narcissism:
Narcissism is not simply a learned word for egotism. It is a way of calling the set of idiosyncratic, individual conditions that ultimately define for each one life as worth living and livable.
"Playing" is an essential part of life. How far each one is ready and willing to go with it determines how sufferable or insufferable life becomes. As a rule it becomes insufferable for those whose "no-playing" narcissism leads them to demand to be loved, appreciated, valued "for what I am". Believing candidly that "I know who/what I am" is probably the saddest of all possible self-deceptions.

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It may be a bit simplistic ... (Below threshold)

July 22, 2008 1:53 PM | Posted by Steve W: | Reply

It may be a bit simplistic to think his reason for stopping was purely because of either his historical distrust of authority OR purely because he was sharp enough to figure out what was really going on.

Isn't it possible he was suspicious of authority, backed out, and simply gave the most obvious explanation possible for his noncompliance? Many people would imagine that they weren't actually torturing someone.

Arg, reading comments now and there is a very similar point made.

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thas a lay!!..:)... (Below threshold)

October 14, 2008 5:41 PM | Posted by monica: | Reply

thas a lay!!..:)

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"He didn't stop because of ... (Below threshold)

May 18, 2010 5:03 AM | Posted by Andy: | Reply

"He didn't stop because of moral courage; he stopped because he thought he was being played."

Just reread this article. Amusing stuff. Why not just accept that people are the way they are and show them this, with evidence. Debate it of course - psychologists and psychiatrists are mostly crackpots and could be wrong, and people can change. Also non-psychos have some insights of their own about human nature. But the take-home: the Real Reason for an action, though inconsistent with one's personal narrative, can lead to morally right actions which are consistent with who you want publicly to be. Sometimes if you want to do the morally right thing you might have to engage in a bit of self-trickery, especially in the post-hoc explanation of why you did what you did...

So now you just have a compile a list of this stuff. Dislike of being played would be on there.

Oh, and some guidelines on coming to terms with who you Really are would be handy. Beer might help here. Psychotherapy will never be the same again. Good job!

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Much to learn have I. I app... (Below threshold)

May 18, 2010 2:02 PM | Posted by Dr. Ew: | Reply

Much to learn have I. I appreciate the comments made, some of them are very thought provoking. Three things I have to think about stemming from this post and the comments:
1) Does performing an action define you in that moment? -- Subsequently, does it matter?

2) I have tried to "be me" my whole life. Mostly because I felt that it was the only way to prevent myself from turning into [someone else]. Is that just bullshit?

3) I may be understanding God more when He says "I am".

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But after he writes "I beli... (Below threshold)

September 2, 2011 10:21 PM | Posted by ExOttoyuhr: | Reply

But after he writes "I believe these experiences also enabled me to stand up to an authoritative 'professor,'" the next paragraph is:

"This is not to say that membership in the Communist Party made me or anyone else totally independent. Many of us, in fact, had become accustomed to carrying out assignments from people with higher positions in the Party, even when we had doubts. Would I have refused to follow orders had the experimental authority figure been a 'Party leader' instead of a 'professor'? I like to think so, as I was never a stereotypical 'true believer' in Party doctrine. This was one of the reasons, among others, that I left the Party in the late 1950s. [Italics mine.] In any event, I believe that my political experience was an important factor in determining my skeptical behavior in the Milgram experiment."

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