Milgram and me

David Byrne’s diary contains a bit about the Milgram Experiments:

The filmmakers attempt to answer that question by including some clips and information on the Milgram experiment,
a series of psychological tests done decades ago. In these tests the
test subject was required by a “scientist” to help an unseen person
learn some phrases by administering small electric shocks when the
unseen person got the answer wrong. As they got more wrong answers the
“scientist” instructed the subject to increase the voltage. The point
of the test was to see just how far the subject would go before ethics
and morals would kick in and they would refuse to harm the invisible


As it turned out, people go
depressingly far before stopping. The invisible subjects would be
screaming in simulated pain (no real shocks were administered), begging
the subject to stop, while the “scientist” urged use of increased
voltages. Many subjects “killed” their invisible students, partly
because they could say they were just doing their job, that the
scientist was obviously an “expert” and maybe partly because the person
was unseen — though the screams could be heard.

These are among the most famous experiments in social psychology but I hadn’t heard of them when I answered an ad in Glasgow University, when I was in second year, 19 years old, looking for volunteers for an experiment. Probably there was some pay or gift involved. I went to a room in the psychology building where I was told I was to take part in an experiment on the effect of punishment on learning. I filled in a questionnaire about my ethical stance on various issues.  I was told that another volunteer was in the next room learning some pairs of words. I would press a button to give him cues and he would press a button to give me his answer. I could allow him two errors then with each subsequent error, I had to give him a ‘small electric shock’ by pressing the red button beside me. They gave me a quick demonstration with an electrode on my finger, at setting 3, which was a sharp and distinctly memorable jolt. I couldn’t see or hear the ‘testee’.

The experiment began and quickly the errors kept coming. Each time I dutifully turned up the dial. I sat there willing him to please get it right but when he didn’t, I still upped the voltage, sometimes with an uncertain look over to the passive experimenter. I think (or perhaps I like to think) that as it got higher I let him off with one or two, but by the end of the experiment I had gone almost to the top voltage. I was so relieved when it was over, imagining how this unseen testee must be feeling. I assumed it had all gone drastically wrong and they never meant him to make so many errors.
Then they explained the real experiment to me – to show how far people will go when it’s not their responsibility, when they’re following instructions, regardless of their own moral codes and, more important, of basic human sympathy. Of course there had never been any testee in the other room. They made a few connections, in particular to Nazi Germany, and sent me home with my fiver or whatever it was.

What they hadn’t reckoned with and shamefully ignored was the effect on the experimentee – me. I never met any of the others, but I was devastated. I was one with the death camp staff, with the perpetrators of massacres and atrocities, of police brutality etc etc.  I had thought of myself as someone who would never ever dream of doing such a thing and there it is in black and white – I would and did, so I was no better than them. It took me years, decades even, to come to terms with it. If I talked about it to others about it (and I seldom did)  it was to tell them, accusingly, that they shouldn’t fool themselves, they were no better than the soldiers, police, vigilantes, gangs they read about.
Now it still disturbs me, but I see it as a teaching about human nature, and even a form of compassion for those painted by history as evil. It answers the ‘German question’ – how did such a cultured and civilised people partake and collude in atrocities. The answer is there – we follow orders, we give responsibility to others. It’s not wrong, it’s not evil – it’s just what we do, like we scratch ourselves when itchy and yawn when tired.  We just have to be aware of the tendency and try to put in safeguards against it. Meditation and self-analysis can help, but they’re not for everyone. Milgram gave us an understanding we still don’t know how to use.

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