Stanley Milgram and Obedience to Authority

Submitted by Chris Webster on Tue, 2008/05/27 - 04:22
Opening Skinner's Box

Possibly you are late. You are running down a small side street in New Haven, Connecticut. It is June 1961, and ahead of you loom the spires of the Yale Episcopalian Church. The streets smell of summer, wet crushed flowers and spoiled fruit, and maybe, because of this, you already feel a little ill. In anticipation. Because of the odor. Something sweet and singed in the air.

Or perhaps you are not late. Perhaps you are the responsible type, with minutes to spare, and so you are strolling and there is no moon because it is raining, a summer rain darting down silver and sideways and making the streets smell strongly of sewage and cement. In this scenario, as well, you already feel a little sick, in anticipation, although of what you cannot say. There is that odor, something rotting in the air.

You are carrying the ad. Just two weeks ago, you ripped it from its newsprint page: “We Will Pay You $4 for One Hour of Your Time. Persons Needed for a Study of Memory.” And because it was Yale, and because of the cash, enough to buy a new blender to replace the one that went kaput, and because, well, it’s all in the name of science, you said yes. Now you are on your way. On your way! The side streets are so … sideways; they curve and tip, the bricks buckling, green weeds thrusting up between the pavers. You trip. You straighten yourself up. You come to the address – Linsly-Chittenden Hall, a gray door – and you are just about to open it when it opens itself and a man comes from the other side, his face all red – and could those be tears streaming down his cheeks? He hustles off into the shadows, and you, it’s your turn. You go in.

First off, you are paid. You go into a room, which is in worse shape than the sidewalk that led you here, walls flaking, naked pipes in a complex meshwork on the ceiling, and a stern man in a white coat who gives you three fresh smackers and four quarters, cold in your palm. He says, “Here is your compensation. It is yours to keep regardless of what happens,” or some such thing. What, you wonder, is going to happen?

Another man comes into the room. He’s got a round face and a silly grin and a straw hat sideways on his head. He’s got blue eyes, but they’re not the ice blue of intelligence or the cornflower blue of passion; they’re a bland, boiled blue. Even before all that happens, you think, This man does not look smart. His name, he says, is Wallace something or other. Hi, you say, my name is Goldfarb, or Wentworth – pick a name, any name will do. Just remember, either way, whatever name, this is you.

The experimenter says, “We are interested in learning about the effects of punishment on learning. There has been very little systematic research into this subject, and we are hoping our findings will be of some help to educational systems.” He says, “In this experiment, one of you will be the learner and receive shocks when you make a mistake in word pairs read to you, and the other one will be the teacher, who will administer the shocks when the word pair repetition is wrong. Now,” the experimenter asks, “which one of you would like to be the learner, which one the teacher?”

You look at – what’s his name? – Wallace. And Wallace shrugs. You shrug. The experimenter says, “We’ll do a drawing.” He holds out two pieces of folded paper. You pick one, Wallace picks one. You open yours: “teacher,” it says. Thank God. Wallace says, laughing, “Looks like I’m the learner.”

The experimenter motions for you and Wallace to follow him. You do. You go down a short dark hallway and into a room that looks like a cell. “Sit in this chair,” the experimenter says to Wallace, and Wallace does. This is no ordinary chair. This is a goddamn electric chair, with a switch plate on the table and straps and strange suckers to put on the skin. “We’ve got to strap him down,” the experimenter says, meaning strap Wallace down, and suddenly you’re bending over this big man, buckling him into the seat as though he’s just a baby, his skin, when you brush it, surprisingly soft. The experimenter takes a can of paste and says, “Rub this on his hands, for the electrodes,” and before you know it, you are massaging grease into this loose-fleshed man, and you feel oddly ill and a tad aroused, and the experimenter says, “Tighten those belts,” and so you do. You grease and tighten, pulling the straps on the black belts so Wallace is harnessed and wired up, and just before you leave, you look at him, a captured man, his pale eyes a little scared, just a glint of fear, and you want to say, “Shhh. Nothing bad will happen here.”

Nothing bad will happen here. Nothing bad will happen here. You repeat that to yourself as you follow the experimenter out of one cell-like room and into another cell-like room where there is no electric chair, but instead a huge generator with shiny buttons, beneath which are printed the voltages – 15, 30, 45, all the way up to 450. “Danger, Extreme Shock, xxx,” it says on the top-level levers. Jesus H Christ. Who is H? Did Jesus have a middle name? Haley, Halifax, Huston? You are starting to think seriously about Jesus’ middle name; sometimes that happens to you – you think about the wrong thing, so you won’t have to think about the right thing. Haley, Halifax, Huston. And meanwhile the experimenter is saying, “You will read these word sequences to Wallace through the microphone. For each mistake he makes, you give him a shock. You start at the lowest, 15, and go up. May I give you a sample shock?”

Oh sure, you’ve always liked samples, sample spoons of ice cream, sample fabric swatches, miniature shampoo samples in drug stores, so why not a sweet little sample shock? You offer your arm. It looks white and floppy in the fluorescent laboratory lights. It is an ugly arm, with dark dots where the hairs spring up. The experimenter lowers some pronged device onto your very own skin and you feel a pair of hot fangs, the kiss of a stingray. You flinch away. “That was 45 volts,” the experimenter says. “Just so you’ll know what the punishment is like.”

Okay okay.

You begin.

Lake, luck, hay, sun. Tree, loon, laughter, child. The word pairs have a kind of poetry to them, and now you are happy, all these lakes and loons, and Wallace, whose voice comes crackling at you through a tiny microphone, also seems happy. “Keep ‘em coming boy!” he shouts, and you lob him chocolate, waffle, valentine, cupid, and that’s when he makes his first mistake. He forgets the cupid, unlucky in love. You give the first shock, just 15 volts, a kittenish tickle, nothing to worry about.

But that first shock changes things. You can just tell. Wallace’s voice, when he repeats the next word pair, is somber, serious, but, goddamn it, he makes another mistake! You give him 30 volts. Next try, good boy, he gets it right, and then again, he gets it right. You find you’re rooting for him, and then he screws up tree house. Then he screws up dahlia and grass and before you know it, you’re up to 115 volts; you watch your finger land on the press-pad, the nacreous nail, the knuckle, which is the hardest part of the hand. You press down. Through the microphone comes the sound of a scream. “Let me out, let me out! I’ve had enough, let me outta here!”

You’re starting to shake. You can feel wet crescents under your arms. You turn to the experimenter. “Okay,” you say. “I guess we gotta stop. He wants out.”

“The experiment requires that you continue,” this poker face says.

“But he wants out!” you say. “We can’t continue if he wants out.”

“The experiment requires that you continue,” he repeats, as though you’re hard of hearing, which you’re not, you’re not! Your hearing’s fine, and so is your vision, twenty-twenty. You have the absurd desire to tell this man all about your clean bill of health and your excellent eyes and your good grades in college and your recent promotion at work. You want to tell Mr. White Coat that you’re a decent person who has always wanted to help, who would do anything not to disappoint, but you’re so sorry, so sorry, you cannot continue the experiment, you hate to disappoint but –

“Please continue,” he says.

You blink. Sometimes the sun blinks in and out, on days when clouds scuttle across the sky. That is the best kind of day, fresh blue sky, clouds as white as bandages, a crisp flag snapping at the tip of its pole. You continue. Somewhere between the cloud and the flag you found yourself going on. You don’t know why, you hate to disappoint, and this experimenter seems so sure of himself and as you continue, you recall how once, when you were a child, there was an eclipse, and the sun and the moon merged in a golden burning minute.

Wallace makes a mistake. He makes three, four mistakes, and now you’re up to 150 volts, and he’s screaming, “I have a heart condition. Let me out of here! I no longer wish to be in this experiment,” and the experimenter is standing right next to you and saying, “Go on, please, the shocks are painful but they are not harmful. There will be no permanent tissue damage.”

You are fighting tears. Your name is Goldfarb, or Winegarten, or Wentworth. What is your name? You’re not so sure. “But he has a heart condition,” you say, you think you say, or is your mind just whispering to itself? “There will be no permanent tissue damage,” he repeats, and you shout, “For God’s sake, what about temporary damage?” and he says, “The experiment requires that you continue,” and you say, you’re crying now, or you’re laughing now, your stomach’s laughing hee-hee-haw while your eyes are dribbling tears, you say, “Why don’t we just go in there and check on him? Let’s just make sure he’s okay,” and Mr White Coat shakes his head, you can hear the bones click in his neck – click click, no no, go on, you touch your own neck and you are shocked, no pun intended, you are shocked to feel how slippery wet it is, from sweat, and also how oddly boneless it is; you press and press, but you cannot find any scaffolding in your neck. Is this experimenter a doctor? “Are you a doctor?” you ask. “Are you convinced there will be no permanent tissue damage?” He seems so sure of himself, just like a doctor, which you’re not, even though you got good grades in school, he knows what he’s doing. You don’t. He wears a white coat. So you continue up the ladder of levers, reading word pairs, and something strange has happened to you. You concentrate totally on your task. You read each word pair carefully, carefully, you press the levers like a pilot at his panel. Your range of vision narrows to the mechanics at hand. You are flying into something. You are flying through something, but what it is you cannot say. You have a job to do. This is not about the sky outside. This is not about sun, bones, blinks, flags. You have a job to do, and so flesh fades away, and Wallace fades away, and in his place, a gleaming machine.

At 315 volts Wallace gives one last, blood-curdling scream and then stops. He falls silent. At 345 volts you turn to the experimenter. You feel very odd. You feel hollow, and the experimenter, when he speaks, seems to fill you up with his air. “Consider silence a wrong answer,” he says, and that seems so funny you start to sneeze and laugh. You just laugh and laugh and press those levers, because there is no way out, no way to say, “No! No! No!” In your head you can say it, but in your hands you can’t, and you understand now how great the distance between the head and the hands – it is miles of unbroken tundra. With your head you say no and with your hands you tap-dance up and down the shock board, in and around the words – skirt, flair, floor, swirl; goose, feather, blanket, star – and all the while there is just this eerie silence punctuated by electric skillet sizzles, and no man. There is no man here.

It is like waking up. It is like falling asleep and dreaming of loons and sharks and then waking up, and the whole thing is over. The experimenter says, “We can stop now,” and through the door comes Wallace, his hat still sideways on his head, not a hair out of place. He looks fine. “Boy you really shook me up in there,” he says, “but no hard feelings.” He pumps your hand. “Wow,” he says, “you’re sweating. Calm down. Geez, I’m known for my melodrama, but I’m fine,” and the experimenter echoes, “Wallace is just fine. The shocks weren’t as bad as they seemed. The danger, lethal level, that’s only for small laboratory animals, which is what we usually use the generator for.”

Oh, you think.

Wallace leaves. A spry little man named Milgram enters the room and says, “Do you mind if I ask you some questions?” Then he shows you a picture of a schoolboy being flogged and takes down your education level and whether you’ve ever been in the army and what religion you are and you are so numb – you answer everything – and you are so confused. So the shock generator was geared for mice, not men? Are you a mouse or a man? If Wallace really wasn’t hurt, then why did he scream so loud? Why did he holler about his heart? You know about hearts. You know about bones and blood, which you happen to have on your hands. A rage rises up. You look at this nimble little Milgram and you say, “I get it. This wasn’t about learning at all. This was an experiment about obedience, obedience to authority,” and Milgram, who is only twenty-seven years old and terribly young to be pioneering such a controversial, damaging, illuminating, and finally famous setup, Milgram turns to you. He has green eyes, the color of lollipops, and a little red scribble of a mouth. “This was about obedience,” you repeat, and Milgram says, “Yes, it was. If you hadn’t guessed it, I would have told you later, in a standard letter I mail to my subjects. Sixty-five per cent of my subjects behaved just as you did. It is totally normal for a person to make the choices you did in the situation we put you in. You have nothing to feel badly about,” but you, you won’t be taken in. You won’t be reassured. He fooled you once, but he won’t fool you twice. There are no reassuring words for what you’ve learned in his lab tonight. Lake. Loon. Swan. Song. You have learned you have blood on your hands. And a body built for the words of other men.

Other men. Maybe that one across the street or in the house next door, but not you. This is what you, the reader, may be thinking. Should you have had the outrageous luck to have found yourself in Linsly-Chittenden Hall at Yale University on a limpid June night in 1961, you would not have done such a thing. Your name, after all, is not Goldfarb or Winegarten or Wentworth. You are, perhaps, a Buddhist. A vegetarian. A hospice volunteer. You work with troubled youth, or donate money to the Sierra Club, or cultivate the most amazing phlox, purple-pink clusters of miniature flowers in a city garden. Not you. But yes, you. For Stanley Milgram proved it to be true, in Linsly-Chittenden Hall, and then later in a lab in Bridgeport, and then still later in replications all around the world. Sixty-two to sixty-five per cent of us, when faced with a credible authority, will follow orders to the point of lethally harming a person.

This seems improbable, impossible, especially because you are – I am – a humanist at heart.

So were his subjects, many of them.

“I am a good worker. I provide for my family. ... The only bad thing about me, I do get tied up in my work – I promise the kids to do something, take them somewhere, and then have to cancel because I get called out on a job.”

“I enjoy my job. I have an enjoyable family, three children. ... I like to grow flowers around my yard. I like to raise a vegetable garden primarily because I like fresh vegetables.”

These were two self-descriptions given by two of Milgram’s fully obedient subjects after the testing. Fresh vegetables. Flowers. Those purple-pink phlox in our gardens.

Prior to beginning his experiments, Stanley Milgram, an assistant professor at Yale, took a poll. He asked a group of eminent psychiatrists how they thought subjects would behave in his simulated situation. He also polled Yale undergraduates and a handful of regular New Haven folks. All came up with the same prediction. People would not administer the shocks all the way. They would break off at 150 volts, maximum, save for the pathological fringe of crypto-sadists who would play every lever as the victim screamed. Even today, forty years after the lesson of Milgram has supposedly been learned, people still say, “Not me.”

Yes, you.

The power of Milgram’s experiments lies, perhaps, right here, in the great gap between what we think about ourselves, and who we frankly are.


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