Science as Cultural Icon: Obedience Doesn’t Explain Everything

Milgram ExperimentThe Milgram obedience studies are a cultural icon much like Proust’s huge novel, In Search of  Lost Time, or Bach’s Cantatas, or the Collected Works of William Shakespeare.  Everyone knows about them and if you are well and truly hip, kewel, groovy, or gear you also know the received opinion about them:  They’re Great!  The only problem is, most folks who wave these icons around during intellectual conversations often haven’t actually read them or heard them or seen them.  They’ve just heard about them and know the cool table evaluation attached to them.

A great illustration of this effect is found in an editorial by Adam Cohen of the New York Times.  Cohen observes a new replication of the Milgram obedience experiments from the 1960s recently published by Professor Jerry Burger (a PDF) in the journal, American Psychologist.  In this replication, Burger repeats a specific experiment Milgram conducted in the 1960s and finds the same effect Milgram reported.  Large percentages of adults will punish strangers with electric shocks when directed by an authority figure.

Cohen took the replication as an opportunity to reflect on the lessons of persuasion research for society.  Let me quote him.

“The results of both experiments pose a challenge. If this is how most people behave, how do we prevent more Holocausts, Abu Ghraibs and other examples of wanton cruelty? Part of the answer, Professor Burger argues, is teaching people about the experiment so they will know to be on guard against these tendencies, in themselves and others.”

“An instructor at West Point contacted Professor Burger to say that she was teaching her students about his findings. She had the right idea — and the right audience. The findings of these two experiments should be part of the basic training for soldiers, police officers, jailers and anyone else whose position gives them the power to inflict abuse on others.”

At the outset, since I am going to criticize Mr. Cohen’s arguments I must probably note that I am not in favor of another Holocaust, Abu Ghraib, or wanton cruelty from soldiers, police officers, jailers or even editorial writers.  We can all agree, can’t we, that wanton cruelty is a bad thing, we find it abhorrent, and we’re against it.

But to wave the Milgram icon over this argument is plain wrong.

First, observe Cohen’s claim that “most people behave” with a destructive acquiesence to authority.  While “most” is flexible term, it implies more than 50% of a population.  Most is a majority.  Most is not a minority.  If you’ve got most of the votes in an election, you win.  If you score most of the points in a ball game, you win.  Most is quite a bit.  Most is decisive.

If you take the time to read Milgram’s research, you know that he conducted many separate obedience experiments all with the same basic setup of an experimentor in a white lab coat with a tricked out lab room, a compelling confederate delivering a great cover story, and that shock box, but, more importantly, under varying conditions.  Sometimes the teacher and the learner had physical contact and sometimes they were in different rooms and then many shades in between these extremes.  If you add up all the experiments, you do not find that most of participants showed that destructive compliance.  It is only under specific conditions that a majority of participants showed the “dangerous compliance” to authority.  The greatest percentage, approximately 60%, occurred when the “teacher” and the “student” were physically separated in different rooms or at great distance within a large room.  Under virtually all other conditions, compliance was well under 50%, or less than “most people.”

Thus, Cohen’s claim that most people will show obedience is simply not true.  You need extremely particular and precise conditions even to get to 60%.  Now, one may argue that if only 20 or 30% of people will always behave with thoughtless and dangerous compliance, it’s a big problem.  Okay.  It is.  But, making untrue claims about bad things to make them seem even worse deludes everyone.  Most people do not show dangerous obedience under most conditions.  That gives us hope.

Second, links to Abu Ghraib (or similar military and legal outrages) from Milgram’s research are dubious and not warranted by the evidence.  The best public information we have on Abu Ghraib clearly demonstrates that no one with central power gave legal orders to mistreat, humiliate, and punish anyone.  That bad behavior occurred within a unit of soldiers who knew each other and were clearly acting outside of policy.  Thus, there was no obedience in the Milgram sense of the concept where an obvious, established, and external authority figure delivered clear, consistent, and unambiguous orders to another person.  These folks were not following orders.  They were abusing helpless people for their own amusement.

Third, while there’s nothing wrong with including a unit on Milgram in the training of military and law enforcement, it’s hard to argue that any soldier or officer who demonstrates a wanton cruelty is being obedient.  Again, in the overwhelming majority of instances, the violent act is not one of just following orders, but as in the Abu Ghraib case, the perpetrators were breaking the law, policy, and orders.  Realize that simply because people behave badly when an authority source is around, does not mean we’ve got an application of Milgram’s research.  Most misuses of authority do not flow from following orders, but from not following orders.

Fourth, while the Holocaust certainly contains painful examples of dangerous compliance it would be a terrible error in both analysis and judgment to claim that Milgram’s research is the prime, leading, or best explanation for that horror.  Contemporary Germany is still wracked by living guilt over people who were not simply following orders, but ardently believed in what they were doing at the time and have now come to feel enormous guilt over that deliberate choice.  It was not simple and blind obedience, but a willing participation that turned a blind eye to the moral hazards.

Distinctions like these are not simply a tempest in a teacup, but are rather a crucial part to the science of power and persuasion.  Just as an obvious bad example:  Imagine someone trying to replicate the Milgram studies.  Instead of meeting a middle aged adult male wearing a lab coat and introduced as “Doctor” the study participants meet a 19 year old college sophomore wearing chinos and a ball cap worn backwards introduced as a student doing a project for an undergraduate psychology course.  Do we really need to do the experiment with this or can we agree that considerably fewer people would max out the shock scale and deliver the highest level of punishment?  You cannot apply experimental studies to situations with many different variables and try to argue as confidently as Mr. Cohen does.