National Post Barbara Kay: The shocking ‘obedience’ experiment that shook the world

National Post - Thursday January 2nd, 2020

Stanley Milgram, an assistant professor of social psychology at Yale University, conducted an experiment in the early 1960s in which test subjects believed they were shocking others.

Herb Winer, who was my fellow synagogue congregant, friend and mentor in my middle years, died a few weeks ago in New Haven, Conn., at the ripe old age of 98.

In a 2000 Granta Magazine article in which he featured, writer (and psychoanalyst) Ian Parker correctly described Herb as a “likeable, deadpan, Jack Lemmony sort of man.” Herb’s dry wit, gentle demeanour and high intelligence made him an agreeable companion, but it was his moral integrity I valued most in him. He was the last person I’d have imagined willingly torturing a helpless stranger.

But he did — or thought he did — as a participant in the Stanley Milgram Experiment, an infamous behavioural study on obedience that threatened to dissolve Americans’ confidence in the existence of good and evil.

The study … threatened to dissolve Americans’ confidence in the existence of good and evil

In 1961 Milgram, an assistant professor of social psychology at Yale University, placed an ad in the university paper seeking post high-school male volunteers of all professions or trades (but not college students) between the ages of 20 and 50 to participate in a scientific study, allegedly of memory and learning. Herb, an assistant professor of forestry at Yale, was attracted by the offer to volunteers of four dollars (and 50 cents car fare).

The premise, Herb was told, was to study the “effects of punishment on learning.” Herb was a “teacher,” sitting in a booth at a machine that could generate shocks of up to 450 volts at his command. The “slow-witted learner” outside the booth (in on the plot and acting out non-existent pain) was strapped into a chair with electrodes on his wrists. Questions were put; wrong answers elicited shocks, each time with increased voltage. Herb told Granta that his heart raced as he heard the groans and complaints of the learner, but the instructor beside him calmly insisted, “The conditions of the experiment require that you continue.”

Baffled and upset by the instructor’s dispassion, Herb felt greatly conflicted. He wanted to stop, but also, “I wanted to be obedient.” It was after all an academic study, something he considered sacrosanct. He did stop, and relatively early, but he took no pride in it, because he couldn’t remember the voltage he stopped at. He told Granta, “if it was over 150 volts I would be very, very ashamed (as anything over 100 volts causes significant pain), and yet it might be.”

Participants in Stanley Milgram’s notorious experiment thought they were shocking other participants with up to 450 volts. Getty Images

Many other participants — 65 per cent — could read the words “severe shock” and “danger” on the machine as they increased, but kept at it despite hearing the “learner’s” howls of pain, and eventually much worse — silence — as they approached 450 volts. One subject, who pressed 450 again and again, said to the instructor, “What if he’s dead in there? I don’t get no answer, no noise.” Some subjects correctly deduced it was a hoax, but according to a 1962 post-experiment questionnaire, three-quarters of the participants told Milgram they believed the learner was “probably” or “definitely” getting shocked.

The experiment was critiqued by Milgram’s colleagues for ethical and methodological reasons, but it had a huge impact on the general public, and in large part because of the timing. The trial in Jerusalem of Nazi eminence Adolf Eichmann, seized by Mossad agents in Buenos Aires, began in 1961, for the first time exposing the Holocaust — and Eichmann’s central role in its mechanics — in all its gruesome detail.

Milgram’s first published works on his obedience study coincided with philosopher Hannah Arendt’s report on the Eichmann trial, in the New Yorker and then in book form. Her remarkable observation of Eichmann as an avatar for the “banality of evil” — a trope that instantly entered common discourse — seemed to bolster Milgram’s finding that ordinary people could, under conditions where obedience is a dominating factor, suspend or ignore normative principles. The most common Nazi justification for war crimes was “only following orders.” Milgram seemed to be saying that any American could have done what the Nazis did under certain circumstances.

Milgram seemed to be saying that any American could have done what the Nazis did

To many revulsed Jewish intellectuals, Arendt and Milgram — both Jewish — lent support to Eichmann’s defence by their common embrace of moral relativism. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, author of Hitler’s Willing Executioners, a study of ordinary Germans’ complicity in the Holocaust, had no use for their “paradigm of external compulsion,” insisting that the crimes of the Holocaust were carried out by people whose consciences were in sync with their behaviour — that is, since they already hated Jews, they were not “only” following orders at all. When people already hate those they kill, Goldhagen says, they think what they are doing is right. Milgram’s findings, he said, “are roundly, repeatedly and glaringly falsified by life.”

Herb Winer was as good as a man can be, but in his own assessment naïve and inclined, as most academics of his day were, to be over-trusting of all university-based “research.” Milgram’s experiment revealed to Herb and to everyone that goodness is neither static nor impregnable. It is, or should be, a work always in progress, employing constant vigilance in order first to recognize and then to resist morally subversive “instructions” from self-appointed authorities.

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