I'm currently reading this
article about Stanley Milgram's famous experiments about the banality of evil - you know the ones that are in every psychology textbook, in which he had people administer increasingly powerful shocks to another person and they all went along with delivering a fatal shock without requiring much effort by the experimenter. Well, as it turns out, it's not quite that simple. The article is unfortunately in Dutch, so I'll do my best to summarize the main points here:
First of all, Milgram conducted not one, but 23 variants of his experiment across 117 sessions, with results varying between 0 and 92.5% compliance. In 1963 he reported only on one of these, in which 65% went all the way. However, if one looks at all 23 experiments, 57% actually eventually disobeyed. Obedience decreased significantly if the person receiving the shocks was in the same room, or if the experimenter took off his grey lab coat, but everyone complied if the person receiving the shock was silent. Everyone tried to resist, and used three main tactics to do so: (1) talking to the victim, (2) pointing out the experimenter's responsibility and (3) simply refuse to continue. The subjects who successfully resisted going along with the experimenter simply did so more often and more consistently than those who didn't.
Milgram's "experimenter" (who was picked specifically because he radiated a sense of authority) frequently deviated from the protocol they had established in order to push people as hard as he could, and Milgram himself wrote in his notes that he wondered whether his experiments had more to do with science or theater. For example, the experimenter was asked to give each subject 4 verbal "nudges" of increasing intensity when they failed to comply, but in reality he often went beyond those, giving as many as 9 or in one case 26 nudges. When he gave the most urgent nudge "you must comply, you have no choice", every test subject refused to cooperate. It seems that Milgram, whose career depended upon reaching a certain conclusion from these experiments, had started with his desired conclusion and refined his experiments until he reached it. It also turns out he failed to inform about 600 of his subjects that the experiment was faked after it was over, because he feared that word would spread and that would render his results useless.
Because of the 1973 refinement of ethical guidelines for psychological experiments, it was next to impossible to even attempt to replicate Milgram's findings.
Recently, two psychologists, Alex Haslam and Stephen Reicher, re-interpreted the outcomes of these experiments as being due not to a hard wiring for obedience, but due to the subjects' love for science
, and them actively deciding to team up with the experimenter. This would explain why, for example:
- Fewer people went along with the experiment when Milgram conducted it in an ordinary office building, rather than at Yale.
- Little nudges that appealed to scientific goals (e.g.: "the experiment requires that you proceed") were most effective.
- Fewer subjects went along with the experiment if they were told it was about "social behavior" than when it was about "cognitive neuroscience".
- Many subjects were relieved and reacted positively (encouraging the experimenter to continue his experiments) when they were assured that their participation had benefited science after the experiment.
In other words, the Milgram experiments were not about blind obedience at all, but rather about seduction, conviction, misdirection, temptation, and engagement. The subjects came into the lab hoping to help out with a scientific experiment, and, rather than relying on blind obedience and human nature, Milgram and his experimenter manipulated those preexisting tendencies. They went along with it not because they were submissive, but because they thought it was the right thing to do. For example, one subject recounted that he went along with the experiment for the sake of his 6 year old daughter, who suffered from a form of paralysis that he hoped science would find a cure for.
The article also deals with other symbols for the banality of evil, like Hannah Arendt, Adolf Eichmann and the Holocaust, and the question of why it is so tempting to believe the worst about human nature.