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A Personal Account of the Milgram Obedience Experiments
by Joe Dimow
In 1961, I participated in a famous experimental study about obedience and authority — although I and other participants were led to believe it was a study of memory and learning. The experiment was designed by a Yale University professor of social psychology, Stanley Milgram, and resulted in a book, Obedience to Authority, which is still widely used in sociology courses.
Like many others in the New Haven area, I answered an ad seeking subjects for the experiment and offering five dollars, paid in advance, for travel and time. At the Yale facility, I met a man who looked very professorial in a white coat and horn-rimmed glasses. He led me into a room filled with an impressive display of electrical equipment. A second man was introduced to me as another subject for the experiment, and together we were told that the experiment was to test the widely held belief that people learn by punishment. In this case, one of us would be a “learner” and the other a “teacher.” The teacher would read a list of paired words to the learner and then repeat the first word of the pair. If the learner did not respond with the correct second word, the teacher would deliver a “mild” electric shock to the learner as punishment.
This struck me as bizarre, and although the instructions were in accord with what we had been told, I wondered if something else was going on.
The “professor” said we would draw straws to see which of us would be the learner. He offered the straws to the other man, then announced that he had drawn the short straw and would be the learner. I hadn’t seen either straw, and my doubts became suspicions that I was being deceived.
The learner, said the professor, would be in an adjoining room, out of my sight, and strapped to a chair so that his arms could not move — this so that the learner could not jump around and damage the equipment or do harm to himself. I was to be seated in front of a console marked with lettering colored yellow for “Slight Shock” (15 volts) up to purple for “Danger: Severe Shock” (450 volts). The shocks would increase by 15-volt increments with each incorrect answer.
I was very suspicious and asked a number of questions: Isn’t it dangerous? How do you know the learner doesn’t have a bad heart and can’t take the shocks? What if he wants to stop, can he get out of the chair? The professor assured me that the shocks were not painful or harmful since the amperage was lowered as the voltage increased. He let me feel what a 45-volt shock would be like: a slight tickle. I asked the learner if he was willing to do this and why he didn’t have any questions. He said, “Let’s try it.” With some trepidation on my part, we began the experiment. After a few shocks, the learner let out an “Ouch!” and I asked if he was okay. He said he was, but after the next shock, his complaint became louder. I said I would stop. The “professor” told me to continue, and the learner said he was ready to go on, too. I went on for two or three more shocks. With each, the learner’s cry of pain became louder — and then he asked to stop, and I refused to go any further. The professor became very authoritative. He said that I was costing them valuable time, it was essential for me to continue, I was ruining the experiment. He asserted that he was in charge, not me. He reminded me that I had been paid and insisted that I continue. I refused, offered to give him back the five dollars, and told him that I believed the experiment to be really about how far I would go, that the learner was an accomplice, and that I was determined not to continue.
At that point, the professor gave up and his demeanor changed. Instead of being authoritative and assertive, he was detached and polite as he asked if I would answer some questions about what had taken place. I agreed, and he asked a series of questions about who was responsible for what had happened.
He showed me pictures and asked for my reactions. One was a painting of a boy looking like a cornered rat, cowering before a young teacher with a cane who looked reluctant to whip the boy but was overseen, in turn, by an older man who appeared to be a judge or headmaster and was ordering the young teacher to proceed. This seemed a crude way of getting me to identify with the teacher; I even asked if the cowering boy was drawn to look ugly so that he would attract no sympathy.
Then I was shown a pie chart on which I was asked to draw lines distributing responsibility for the experiment and its aftermath. I allotted one half the pie to the experimenter and one quarter each for the two subjects — then I drew more lines to show that as the experiment went on and the learner became an unwilling participant, unable to stop the experiment, his portion decreased while the experimenter’s and the teacher’s portions increased.
AFTER SEVERAL such questions, I asked if my suspicions were correct and if the whole experiment was designed to see if ordinary Americans would obey immoral orders, as many Germans had done during the Nazi period. The professor declined to answer, but asked what had made me think that the experiment was not what had been described to me at the beginning. I told him that my suspicions had been aroused by the way the straws had been handled, by the idea that they would risk shocking a stranger, and by the fact that he, the professor, had been in the area with me the whole time and had never gone to observe the learner. He did not respond to my comments, but said I would receive a report when the experiment was completed.
Then the most disturbing part of the entire experience occurred: The professor brought in the learner and I was flabbergasted. His face was covered in tears and he looked haggard. He offered his hand and thanked me for stopping the experiment, saying that the shocks hadn’t really hurt but anticipating them had been dreadful. I was confused as to whether he was in earnest or acting. I left unsure, and waited outside for the learner so I could discuss it with him. After about a half hour he had not appeared, and I was convinced that he was an actor and that my suspicions about the experiment had been correct. The report that I received confirmed that the experiment was designed to see how far subjects would go in obeying orders to administer pain to others. It had arisen out of the desire to understand the widespread obedience to horrendous and brutal orders in Nazi Germany. The report also confirmed that the professor and learner were indeed actors, although not professionals — and I have always thought that they deserved Academy Awards anyway.
After these many years, I don’t remember what I did with the report (probably gave it to a sociology student), but I have been able to find information about the experiment from Milgram’s and other books. Of forty participants in Milgram’s first experiment, fifteen refused to continue at some point, while twenty-five went all the way to 450 volts — a “shock” that they administered three times before the experiment was ended by the professor. (There was no actual shock, of course. The actor playing the part of the learner reacted with a cry of pain to a red light, which lit whenever there was a supposed shock.)
The experiment was repeated in other venues away from the university in Hartford and Cambridge. Results were worst (that is, the highest percentage of testers went all the way to 450 volts) with a group of nurses in Bridgeport. The experiments were also repeated in Princeton, Munich, Rome, South Africa, and Australia, with levels of obedience registering even higher than in New Haven. (In Munich, 85 percent of the subjects were obedient to the end.) Before the experiments began, Stanley Milgram sought predictions from a variety of people, including psychiatrists and college faculty and graduate students. “With remarkable similarity,” he wrote,
they predicted that virtually all the subjects would refuse to obey the experimenter. The psychiatrists, specifically, predicted that most subjects would not go beyond 150 volts, when the victim makes his first explicit demand to be freed. They expected that only four percent would reach 300 volts, and that only a pathological fringe of about one in a thousand would administer the highest shock on the board. (The Perils of Obedience).
MANY social psychologists were critical of the experiment. Diana Baumrind, in the American Psychologist, 1964, complained that there was no informed consent and that even if valuable information were gleaned, it would not justify the risk that real [emotional] harm [would be] done to the subject. Milgram maintained that a followup questionnaire showed that 84 percent of the subjects were glad to have been involved, 15 percent were neutral and only 1.3 percent were sorry or had negative feelings. Milgram also had a psychiatrist interview subjects thought most likely to have suffered consequences, and the doctor found no evidence of traumatic reactions. I don’t remember if I answered this questionnaire, but I would have been in the neutral group.
In retrospect, I believe that my upbringing in a socialist-oriented family steeped in a class struggle view of society taught me that authorities would often have a different view of right and wrong than mine. That attitude stayed with me during my three and one half years of service in the army, in Europe, during World War II. Like all soldiers, I was taught to obey orders, but whenever we heard lectures on army regulations, what stayed with me was that we were also told that soldiers had a right to refuse illegal orders (though what constituted illegal was left vague).
In addition, in my position during the late 1940s as a staff member of the Communist Party, in which I held positions as chairman in New Haven and Hartford, I had become accustomed to exercising authority and having people from a variety of backgrounds and professions carry out assignments I gave them. As a result, I had an unorthodox understanding of authority and was not likely to be impressed by a white lab coat.
IN THE EARLY 1950s, I was harassed and tailed by the FBI, and in 1954, along with other leaders of the Communist Party in Connecticut, I was arrested and tried under the Smith Act on charges of “conspiracy to teach and advocate the overthrow of the government by force and violence.” We were convicted, as expected, and I was about to go to jail when the conviction was overturned on appeal. I believe these experiences also enabled me to stand up to an authoritative “professor.”
This is not to say that membership in the Communist Party made me or anyone else totally independent. Many of us, in fact, had become accustomed to carrying out assignments from people with higher positions in the Party, even when we had doubts. Would I have refused to follow orders had the experimental authority figure been a “Party leader” instead of a “professor”? I like to think so, as I was never a stereotypical “true believer” in Party doctrine. This was one of the reasons, among others, that I left the Party in the late 1950s. In any event, I believe that my political experience was an important factor in determining my skeptical behavior in the Milgram experiment.
I think the experiment had only limited relevance to our understanding of the actions of the German people under Nazi rule. In the experiment, the professor had no power to enforce his orders. In Nazi Germany, the enforcement powers went from simple reprimand all the way to imprisonment and death. In addition, the role of the learner in the experiment was markedly different from the victimized Jews, Gypsies, gay men and others under Nazism, who had not volunteered to be in an “experiment” and had no ability to stop their suffering.
The results of the Milgram experiment should not surprise us. Most people unquestioningly obey orders from authorities, and refusal is unusual. As children, after all, we are taught to obey our parents, teachers, employers and law enforcement officers. Perhaps that is why examples of refusal to obey immoral orders excite my admiration. This is especially so of the Israeli soldiers and pilots who are currently defending the morality of their country and of the Jewish people by refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories. Some are paying a high price in lost jobs, destroyed careers and jail time for their actions. Their situation cannot be directly compared to that of us who were tested in the Milgram experiment, for they are not being explicitly ordered to injure innocent people (although they know that the “collateral damage” of their military actions includes innocents), nor are the people being killed and injured voluntarily participating in an experiment. Still, the results of the Milgram experiment demonstrate how rare and heroic is the “Courage to Refuse” (as one of their organizations is named). These are people who deserve to be honored.
Joseph Dimow, a member of our Editorial Board, conducts the “Inside the Jewish Community” column in each issue of the magazine.
Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.