Deep Thought: Milgram Thoughts
I'm tired out from the election, Covid, and the end-of-the-year blues. People's bad behaviour grates more than usual. I start worrying whether it's true or not that we can't really do anything about that. So it's hardly a wonder that I found myself watching the movie Experimenter for the third time.
Experimenter is a great movie. It's about Stanley Milgram (1933-1984), the social psychologist who did so much to enlighten us about why ordinary people do such extraordinarily bad things. If you get a chance, watch that movie sometime, if only for the best visual metaphor I've ever seen. (It involves an elephant.)
Social psychologists have a problem. Their science is experimental, but their subjects are human. The trick is trying to run an experiment on humans without getting arrested. Milgram didn't get arrested, but he did get criticised a lot. I imagine pigeons would have opinions on Dr Skinner if they had their own newspapers.
When Stanley Milgram started his infamous experiment in human obedience to authority, there was another researcher doing similar experiments on people. His name was Allen Funt. He wasn't an academic: he was a radio and tv producer. He put people in weird situations, just like social psychologists. He didn't get arrested because he paid the subjects money and had them sign waivers, then put their antics on television. His show was called Candid Camera. He played tricks on people, but he didn't have to write peer-reviewed papers about it.
Milgram's experiment involved seeing how far ordinary people would go if ordered by an 'authority' figure (guy in a lab coat) to inflict pain on another random person. In reality, no pain was inflicted, and the other person wasn't random, just an actor who was in on the scam. For scam it was: social psychology experiments have a lot in common with the sort of frauds the Bunco Squad investigate. The only differences are that the 'mark' is called an 'experimental subject', and instead of taking money, the scam artist usually pays the subject, who is often an undergraduate student in need of quick cash.
Milgram was trying to figure out how the Holocaust happened. How did the Nazis get all those people to do those horrible things? Of course, he and his university thought that nobody in New Haven, Connecticut (home of Yale University) would fall for a bogus authority experiment like that. He planned to prove how enlightened they were, and then go on to the darker corners of the world…
Boy, was he surprised.
It turns out that whenever and wherever the Milgram Experiment is carried out, the results are the same: two out of three people will hurt others if a boss figure tells them to. This is really depressing information. Nobody wants to hear that. No wonder he was denied tenure at Harvard. People are still trying to disprove that experiment.
Milgram's experiment interests me for what it says about democracy. You see, it's very easy for people with an agenda, and the money behind it, to launch a propaganda campaign to convince people that figures they admire and respect really want them to do something that will hurt someone else: deny them opportunity or civil rights, punish them disproportionately, or control their lives in some unreasonable way. If the question is put to a vote, there's the danger that the majority will vote for something unethical. So how do the one-third, who don't want that, get enough of the two-thirds on their side to keep society open and sane? That's a problem.
If we understand the lessons of the Milgram Experiment, we realise how important it is to de-legitimise unethical behaviour, not by preaching civil courage, but by legitimising another point of view. We need to put forward our own 'authorities'. We need to get the neighbours to join another group. This can get tricky.
Stanley Milgram wasn't wrong: there's something in human behaviour that needs to be watched very carefully. It's possible that we can use his insights to help us help ourselves. Those scam-artist social psychologists may just be onto something. Allen Funt, too.
Want to read the book? Here.
Want to see William Shatner pretend to be Stanley Milgram? Watch The Tenth Level courtesy of archive.org. No, Milgram wasn't thrilled with it. No scientist ever is, once the tv people get to working on the research.