by Rachael Clemente
Stanley Milgram, a Yale University psychologist, paid careful attention to the works of Solomon Asch and his studies on conformity. Asch was famous for having seven planted participants and one actual participant sit in a room and answer a simple question: “Which of these lines is longer?” The dummy participants would all answer individually initially but after a while began unanimously picking the wrong answer.
Asch found that a third of the time the actual participant would also agree with the group, even when the correct answer was blatantly obvious. Milgram was intrigued by his studies and he wanted to try his own but also push the envelope. In 1961 he decided to find out exactly how far a normal human being would go in hurting someone based on humans’ desire to be obedient.
Milgram set up his experiment so that there was one actual participant dubbed “the teacher” and one planted participant dubbed “the learner”. They were introduced and told that they would both be taking part in a study on punishment/reward and its effects on learning. They were told that one would be a “learner” and have to memorize word pairings, and the other would be a “teacher” who would either respond that the learner was correct and continue on, or deliver an electric shock for a wrong answer. For each wrong answer the strength of the shock would increase.
The “teacher” watched as the “learner” was strapped into a chair and had electrodes placed on their body. The “learner” at this point makes a statement concerning a mild heart condition which is acknowledged by the experimenter as the real participant watched. The “teacher” was then led out of the room into a separate lab area where they could presumably hear the “learner” in the other room.
The electric shock machine was a fake and a tape recording of the “learner” was played simulating actual responses. After wrong answers the “teacher” would hear protests, yelps of pain, and demands the experiment stop. The experimenter was to verbally persuade and demand the “teacher” continue if they showed any hesitance. The perceived voltage of the shocks would go up by 15 volts with each wrong answer to a max of 450 where the “learner” would cease responding, indicating possible death or unconsciousness. The “teacher” would have to defy the experimenter’s commands if they wanted to stop and save the “learner”.
Before Milgram began he polled his colleagues, students, and other doctors. They all unanimously agreed that only a small fraction – a “lunatic fringe” – would go on to the full 450 volts. So it was understandably surprising when it turned out around 60% of participants in the experiment did just that.
Milgram performed the study multiple times in different geographic areas with different demographics. On average 61-66% of average individuals carried on. Even when they played anguished screams of pain and complaints of chest pain over the PA, more often than not the “teacher” continued.
Almost all the reactions of those that continued had something in common, though. At the point where the “learner” began demanding the experiment stop they all began to turn to the experimenter to ask: “Are you going to shock him? Are you going to be responsible if he has a heart attack?” Many of them began placing responsibility for pushing the shock button onto the experimenter.
To quickly resolve a conflict between two prime principles in the “teachers’” mind (obedience vs. not hurting others), participants sub-consciously deferred responsibility for the action of hurting another or refused to continue.
When we look at society, we see that it’s not all that big a surprise that many times obedience won out. Our society prizes and promotes conformity. Conformity and obedience are intertwined inexplicably since conformity demands obedience to certain rules set out by a given group and obedience propagates conformity.
We see conformity/obedience in the cliques that form in high schools and in the workplace, in how all groups are formed. For a group to form and sustain itself the people making up the group must agree to conform to and obey certain guidelines. Any new member must thereafter agree to conform to the rules set out previously by the initiators of the group.
We are expected to obey everything from traffic signs to gender roles in society. Traffic signs for the most part are a blessing – gender roles not so much. While obedience is something that we cannot live without as it has natural benefits and is partially innate, it is still not an excuse to simply say, “That’s what they told me to do,” because we also have another innate trait called free will.
We are not robots, otherwise 100% of Milgram’s participants would have complied. We live in a society that pushes unquestioning loyalty and adherence though and this leads to the sustaining of some very bad rules and structures, rules, and roles in society. The sustaining of gender roles for example requires people to enforce certain stated and unstated rules. They are not naturally occurring and are instead taught and enforced. As many do not question and instead simply obey these roles they continue, perpetuating something rather detrimental in our society.
Milgram whose drive to find out more about human nature came from trying to understand the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis was stunned by all of this. In his experiments, the subjects were all debriefed after the end of the experiment. He re-introduced them to the “learner” to show them that they were ok. Afterwards though he asked a simple question: “Why didn’t you stop when you thought that the learner was having a heart attack?”
Their own responses often opened the eyes of the participants. Subconscious became very conscious, demonstrating that they had chosen obedience over another’s life. This undoubtedly had a huge impact on the subjects. In fact it had so much of an impact that the very ethics of the experiment were called into question. But the truth remains that this unveiled how a disproportionate societal emphasis on one trait (obedience) can result in the turbo-charging of exploitative/dangerous practices (e.g.: impossible physical standards pushed on to women, heterosexism, racism).
It stands to be noted that the pressure to be obedient is obviously NOT the only reason for isms’ existence but it is one aspect of society that is often overlooked that plays a part in all of the oppression we see today. We obey what the media tells us subconsciously without questioning the ethics behind what is being said. It is even easier to accept these structures and beliefs when they do not affect us directly (e.g.,: men are not affected directly by our objectification hence it is a much easier pill to swallow for them than us).
Racism, sexism, etc., are all irrational, unfounded power structures a social focus on obedience helps propagate and exacerbate. They need people to be unquestioning and obedient to survive. Critical thinking, part of our free will and our counter-balance is the antithesis of all isms. It wouldn’t hurt then to start teaching our kids about Stanley Milgram and the benefits of a little defiance.