A feature of a job like mine in the steerage of HE admin is never quite knowing what to expect next, which is why when I found myself, one random Tuesday afternoon, watching and re-watching a video of Stanley Milgram in the Seventies, talking about his obedience experiments, I wasn’t even slightly surprised (long story, involves copyrights, very dull). But a teaching moment, all the same; although the experiments are famous, I didn’t know any more about them than every other non-Psychologist: he proved that most people would hurt others if they were told to, even if they said they didn’t want to.
Once over the culture shock (the paternalism! Pipe smokers! Questionable facial hair choices!), the experiments turned out to be more complex. Several variations were run to test hypotheses on factors affecting the results. There must have been some fairly free interpretation of experimental design, as even in those days the ethics were questionable at best, but the findings stood up.
In lab settings and hired offices, and among test subjects of either gender, more than sixty percent of people instructed to give what they believed was a potentially fatal electric shock to another person in the context of a memory and learning test did so. Unwilling, protesting, being persuaded, assured responsibility lay with the directors of the experiments, the majority would continue.
The only factor that reduced this was proximity – the 60%+ was when the subject was in another room. If the person they believed they were shocking was in the same room, compliance was around forty percent, and if they had to physically interact with them to give the ‘shock’, around thirty.
The experiments, conceived in the long shadow of World War II, were infamous almost as soon as they were published, in academic circles and beyond. Milgram’s career hung in the balance for quite a while. Some of the strongest criticisms were less about flaws in the experiments than the need to reject a conclusion that went against many people’s conviction that they (and a majority of people) would reject authority when it directed them to cause harm.
For all that the experiments were about the past, it’s something to think about for the present, and the future. After all, isn’t the internet, where we increasingly work and learn, meet and shop and play, like everyone else being in the other room, all the time?