If you know what the Milgram experiment was, odds are that you are middle-aged or older, with a BA in the liberal arts, or even, god forbid, psychology. Less likely is that the experiment remains in your memory among your collection of cautionary tales—and you may haul it out in conversations where the topic gets round to questions of obedience, authority and moral compasses. (Why don’t we ever hear about ethical compasses? Because ethics are rules and roadmaps created by authorities purportedly to help us find our way if we lose our moral compasses. For the difference see either diffen.com or wisegeek.org.
In the early 1960s, Stanley Milgram, a Yale psych professor, recruited subjects to take part in a learning experiment. The volunteer was to read strings of words to a person he thought was another volunteer, but who was, in fact, a member of the team. Each time the learner got the words wrong, the volunteer was supposed to push a button that would deliver an electric shock. The lab-coated director told the volunteer to keep raising the voltage if the learner couldn’t get the words right. And a majority of volunteers, even as they protested, followed the instructions of the director, raising the electric shocks often past the point where the learner was apparently crying out with pain. (The learner’s screams were actually tape recordings, to provide continuity from one session to another.)
“…His face was red. His eyes were bloodshot and staring straight into mine. “Don’t you ever ever to that to me again,” he shouted.”
Late last year the Journal of Social Issues published an edition reexamining Milgram’s work, what it may or may not have proved, and the controversy and questions about human nature left still unanswered in its wake. For more detail see Cari Romm’s recent article in the Atlantic.
I came across the Milgram experiment in 1968 in a psychology course in the fall of my sophmore year at Purdue University. I had flunked out as a freshman physics major, and had decided to try my luck as a psych major; a.k.a. in those days as Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll.
The My Lai massacre had happened half a year earlier. My professor was an earnest radical stuck in an egregiously conservative midwestern university Continue reading Do What You’re Told: Why the Milgram experiment still haunts me