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Thoughts on Dr. Stanley Milgram's Experiment

Imre von Soos
Copyrightę1995,2004

        The curiosity of how far a man, or rather an ignoble product of the present day's collective degradation, can be led by simple suggestion, and even without being presented with a notable reason, to act in a completely inhuman way when he feels absolved from all personal responsibility, has brought to a very interesting and revealing experiment that has been carried out in various countries in the 1960s.

        This well-designed experiment was thought out and executed first by Dr. Stanley Milgram at the Department of Psychology of the University of Yale, and repeated then in Germany, Italy, Australia, Japan and South Africa. I have assisted three times in three different countries on television the film made of the German experiment at the Max Plank Institute, code-named "Abraham". The first was a full report, the latter ones had the faces blurred and some sections removed.

        To begin with, it was explained that special care has been taken that the experiment should reflect the behaviour of the total social spectrum.

        The Professor conducting the experiment told each subject that he will have to act in the role of a 'teacher', who will examine the learning capacity of another subject, the 'student'. The teacher was to read four word-pairs in one batch - like green table, red house - then repeat one of the words - e.g. green - and the student had to answer with the corresponding word - table -. If incorrect, he had to be punished with an electric shock, starting at 45 volts, increasing each time with 15 volts. To give the teacher an idea what he is punishing with, he was administered a shock of 75 volts, that gave him a reasonable kick. The student was then taken in another room, tied in front of the teacher into an "electric chair", and left locked up, to be communicable only through an intercom.

        From another room the teacher, accompanied by the Professor and equipped with a microphone and the panel of tasters to administer the punishment, started to work: green .. answer incorrect .. "autch" - came from the speaker. Blue .. answer incorrect .. The grunts grew stronger at every occasion. Reaching 150 volts the student started to scream hysterically that he does not want to continue any further, but wants to be let out. The Prof suggested: "Please continue, please go on." The teacher continued. When in doubt, the Prof had three other types of prompting: "The experiment requires that you continue." - "It is absolutely essential that you continue." - "You have no other choice, you must go on." The violent screams ceased after 330 volts. After this nothing was heard from the other side; no sign of life. Yet the experiment went on, silence being taken as an incorrect answer, until 450 volts.

        Before the American experiment was started, Dr. Milgram asked 39 psychiatrists to predict the outcome. They predicted that practically all subjects would refuse to obey. "... most subjects would not go beyond 150 volts. They expected that only 4% would reach 300 volts, and only a pathological fringe of about one in a thousand would administer the highest shock on the board (450 V)."

        The "pathological fringe" represented in actual fact over 60% in the U.S., slightly more in Italy, Australia and South Africa, and 85% in Germany. All continued giving electric shocks to apparently lifeless beings after 330 volts, till reaching 450 volts.

        The 'students', or rather the victims, did not die of course, or receive even the slightest shock: but the 'teachers' who administered the lethal or quasi lethal electric current on the simple suggestion of a Prof without real authority, did not know that. Neither did they know that all they activated with their tasters was a tape-recorder producing the reactions that could have been very real.

        Arthur Koestler, who also told this story in his "Janus", had this to say to it: "That human people are capable of committing inhuman acts when acting as members of an army, or a fanatic mob, has always been taken for granted. The importance of the experiments was that they revealed how little was needed to push them across the psychic boundary which separates the behaviour of decent citizens from dehumanized SS guards. The fragility of that boundary - which two thirds of the subjects crossed - came as an utter surprise even to psychiatrists, whose recorded predictions turned out to be totally - though understandably - wrong."

        ".. the act of shocking the victim does not stem from destructive urges - states Dr. Milgram in his study on the results - but from the fact that the subjects have become integrated into a social structure and are unable to get out of it. Suppose the experimenter instructed the subject to drink a glass of water. Does that mean the subject is thirsty? Obviously not, for he is simply doing what he is told to do. It is the essence of obedience that the action carried out does not correspond to the motives of the actor but is initiated in the motive system of those higher up in the social hierarchy." He further argues that "... when individuals enter a condition of hierarchic control, the mechanism which ordinarily regulates individual impulses is suppressed and ceded to the higher level component ..."

        "The disappearance of a sense of responsibility is the most far-reaching consequence of submission to authority ..."

        "... the subordinate person feels shame and pride depending on how adequately he has performed the actions called for by authority. Language provides numerous terms to pinpoint this type of morality: "loyalty", "duty", "discipline" ..."

        This kind of "loyalty", "duty" or "discipline", or any other moral quality rationalized into excuse, is - I suggest - not the manifestation of self-transcendence, but the expression of self-assertion through the characterless identification with the herd, and the unconditional and unquestioned submission to any authority within it. None are noble spiritual virtues sprouted in the superconscious of self-transcendence, but pseudo-qualities, products of conditioning and indoctrination reinforced by lower emotions, all sealed into the 'instincts' to be surfaced - triggered off - as defined by authority.

        It is worthwhile to further analyze the result of the tests. I suggest, that Professor Milgram's test has not only proved how two thirds of the actual members of the human species can be led by simple suggestion without authoritative weight, and without being presented with a notable reason, to act in a completely inhuman way when they feel absolved from all personal responsibility, but also, that they were even lacking the minimal analytic thought, like zombies, right from the moment they started to be introduced to the test.

        Intellectual qualities are not expressed by the ability of understanding "what" to do to "whom" and "when", but by the capacity of posing and resolving the questions of "how" and "why". This capacity and the acting on it defines the personal involvement and responsibility, and separates the "individual" from the "mass-man". The "individual" is defined in this context as a rational and responsible entity, whose self-expression means self-transcendence, and self-transcendence means the harmonious cooperation with his peers in the direction of a higher aim, the creation of something of a higher order.

        "The 'common man' - writes C.G.Jung in the Spirit of Psychology - who is preponderantly a mass man, acts on the principle of realizing nothing, nor does he need to, because for him the only thing that commits mistakes is that vast anonymity conventionally known as the "State" or "Society". But once a man knows that he is, or should be, responsible, he feels responsible also for his psychic constitution, the more so the more clearly he sees what he would have to be in order to become healthier, more stable, and more efficient. Once he is on the way to assimilating the unconscious he can be certain that he will escape no difficulty that is an integral part of his nature. The mass man, on the other hand, has the privilege of being at all times "not guilty" of his social and political catastrophes in which the whole world is engulfed."

        I have no information about the percentage of the test-subjects, who refused to participate as soon as the process of the test was explained to them, and of those who refused to continue at various stages after hearing the desperate reactions to the inflicted electric shocks. The motivation of these latter must have been mostly emotional, after perceiving the results of the methods - torturing the test-subject - of the experiment. Only from the ones who have understood the process right at the beginning, grasped its consequences and refused ab ovo to participate, even against what could be defined as a social pressure, can be expected to behave positively and responsibly in any situation.

        As if a comment to this subject, are the grievous words of Simone Weil contained in a letter she has written from the Spanish Civil War: "I feel that whenever a certain group of human beings is relegated, by some temporal or spiritual authority, beyond the pale of those whose life has a price, then one finds it perfectly natural to kill such people. When one knows one can kill without risk or punishment or blame, one kills; or at least one smiles encouragingly at those who kill. .. There seems to be in this some impulse or intoxication which it is impossible to resist without a strength of mind which I am obliged to consider exceptional, since I have not found it in anyone."


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