The Situationist

Zimbardo on Milgram and Obedience – Part II

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 16, 2009

Milgram's StudentSituationist Contributer Philip Zimbardo has authored the preface to a new edition of social psychologist Stanley Milgram’s seminal book Obedience to Authority. This is the second of a two-part series derived from that preface. In Part I of the post, Zimbardo describes the inculcation of obedience and Milgram’s role as a research pioneer. In this part, Zimbardo answers challenges to Milgram’s work and locates its legacy.

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Unfortunately, many psychologists, students, and lay people who believe that they know the “Milgram Shock” study, know only one version of it, most likely from seeing his influential movie Obedience or reading a textbook summary.

He has been challenged for using only male participants, which was true initially, but later he replicated his findings with females. He has been challenged for relying only on Yale students, because the first studies were conducted at Yale University. However, the Milgram obedience research covers nineteen separate experimental versions, involving about a thousand participants, ages twenty to fifty, of whom none are college or high school students! His research has been heavily criticized for being unethical by creating a situation that generated much distress for the person playing the role of the teacher believing his shocks were causing suffering to the person in the role of the learner. I believe that it was seeing his movie, in which he includes scenes of distress and indecision among his participants, that fostered the initial impetus for concern about the ethics of his research. Reading his research articles or his book does not convey as vividly the stress of participants who continued to obey authority despite the apparent suffering they were causing their innocent victims. I raise this issue not to argue for or against the ethicality of this research, but rather to raise the issue that it is still critical to read the original presentations of his ideas, methods, results, and discussions to understand fully what he did. That is another virtue of this collection of Milgram’s obedience research.

A few words about how I view this body of research. First, it is the most representative and generalizable research in social psychology or social sciences due to his large sample size, systematic variations, use of a diverse body of ordinary people from two small towns—New Haven and Bridgeport, Connecticut—and detailed presentation of methodological features. Further, its replications across many cultures and time periods reveal its robust effectiveness.

As the most significant demonstration of the power of social situations to influence human behavior, Milgram’s experiments are at the core of the situationist view of behavioral determinants. It is a study of the failure of most people to resist unjust authority when commands no longer make sense given the seemingly reasonable stated intentions of the just authority who began the study. It makes sense that psychological researchers would care about the judicious use of punishment as a means to improve learning and memory. However, it makes no sense to continue to administer increasingly painful shocks to one’s learner after he insists on quitting, complains of a heart condition, and then, after 330 volts, stops responding at all. How could you be helping improve his memory when he was unconscious or worse? The most minimal exercise of critical thinking at that stage in the series should have resulted in virtually everyone refusing to go on, disobeying this now heartlessly unjust authority. To the contrary, most who had gone that far were trapped in what Milgram calls the “agentic state.”

These ordinary adults were reduced to mindless obedient school children who do not know how to exit from a most unpleasant situation until teacher gives them permission to do so. At that critical juncture when their shocks might have caused a serious medical problem, did any of them simply get out of their chairs and go into the next room to check on the victim? Before answering, consider the next question, which I posed directly to Stanley Milgram: “After the final 450 volt switch was thrown, how many of the participant-teachers spontaneously got out of their seats and went to inquire about the condition of their learner?” Milgram’s answer: “Not one, not ever!” So there is a continuity into adulthood of that grade-school mentality of obedience to those primitive rules of doing nothing until the teacher-authority allows it, permits it, and orders it.

My research on situational power (the Stanford Prison Experiment) complements that of Milgram in several ways. They are the bookends of situationism: his representing direct power of authority on individuals, mine representing institutional indirect power over all those within its power domain. Mine has come to represent the power of systems to create and maintain situations of dominance and control over individual behavior. In addition, both are dramatic demonstrations of powerful external influences on human action, with lessons that are readily apparent to the reader, and to the viewer. (I too have a movie, Quiet Rage, that has proven to be quite impactful on audiences around the world.) Both raise basic issues about the ethics of any research that engenders some degree of suffering and guilt from participants. I discuss at considerable length my views on the ethics of such research in my recent book The Lucifer James Monroe High School BronxEffect: Understanding Why Good People Turn Evil (2008). When I first presented a brief overview of the Stanford Prison Experiment at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association in 1971, Milgram greeted me joyfully, saying that now I would take some of the ethics heat off his shoulders by doing an even more unethical study!

Finally, it may be of some passing interest to readers of this book, that Stanley Milgram and I were classmates at James Monroe High School in the Bronx (class of 1950), where we enjoyed a good time together. He was the smartest kid in the class, getting all the academic awards at graduation, while I was the most popular kid, being elected by senior class vote to be “Jimmie Monroe.” Little Stanley later told me, when we met ten years later at Yale University, that he wished he had been the most popular, and I confided that I wished I had been the smartest. We each did what we could with the cards dealt us. I had many interesting discussions with Stanley over the decades that followed, and we
almost wrote a social psychology text together. Sadly, in 1984 he died prematurely from a heart attack at the age of fifty-one.

[Milgram] left us with a vital legacy of brilliant ideas that began with those centered on obedience to authority and extended into many new realms—urban psychology, the small-world problem, six degrees of separation, and the Cyrano effect, among others—always using a creative mix of methods. Stanley Milgram was a keen observer of the human landscape, with an eye ever open for a new paradigm that might expose old truths or raise new awareness of hidden operating principles. I often wonder what new phenomena Stanley would be studying now were he still alive.

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To read Part I of this post, click here.  To read three related Situationist posts by Phil Zimbardo, see “The Situation of Evil,” Part I, Part II, and Part III.

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3 Responses to “Zimbardo on Milgram and Obedience – Part II”

  1. Fascinating. Thank you. I wish that people had more ability to stand up to authority. The fact that the participants were so distressed shows that they were acting against their own conscience. But it’s better to know the truth of how human beings react than to believe erroneous preconceptions.

  2. [...] Part 1 and Part 2. [...]

  3. [...] see, “Milgram Remake,” “Zimbardo on Milgram and Obedience Part I,” “Zimbardo on Migram and Obedience Part II,” and “Zimbardo Lecture on How Good People Turn [...]

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