Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Milgram experiment: A cross-cultural perspective

You’ve probably heard of the Milgram experiment. Assistants are told to give a ‘subject’ progressively stronger electric shocks whenever he or she fails on a learning task. Most of the assistants—the real subjects of the experiment—obediently do as they are told, even when the pseudo-subject is visibly in pain and pleads for cessation of the shocks. (In reality, the pseudo-subject is a trained actor and no shocks are actually given). When Stanley Milgram began this research at Yale in the early 1960s, he found that 65% of his subjects kept on administering electric shocks right up to the top end of the scale.

In the postwar era, Milgram’s work was in line with several other studies, notably The Authoritarian Personality, that painted a dark picture of America. This cynicism appeared in a 1979 interview on Sixty Minutes:

Safer: Are you suggesting that, that it could happen here?
Milgram: I would say, on the basis of having observed a thousand people in the experiment and having my own intuition shaped and informed by these experiments, that if a system of death camps were set up in the United States of the sort we had seen in Nazi Germany, one would be able to find sufficient personnel for those camps
in any medium-sized American town.
(Blass, 2000, pp. 35-36)

But were the subjects really brutal because they were acting under orders? Perhaps they just enjoyed having a chance to be brutal. This potential criticism occurred to Milgram (1974, pp. 70-71):

Indeed, one theoretical interpretation of the behavior holds that men harbor deeply aggressive instincts continually pressing for expression and that the experiment provides institutional justification for the release of these impulses. According to this view, if a person is placed in a situation where he has complete power over another individual, whom he may punish as much as he likes, all that is sadistic and bestial in man comes to the fore.

… It becomes vital, therefore, to compare the subjects’ performance when they are under orders and when they are allowed to choose the shock levels.

When allowed to choose the shock levels, only one of the seventy-one subjects (1.4%) administered shocks right up to the top end of the scale. Milgram (1974, p. 72) concluded:

Insofar as the experiments tell us something about human nature, the revelation on how men act toward others when they are on their own is here. Whatever leads to shocking the victim at the highest level cannot be explained by autonomously generated aggression but needs to be explained by the transformation of behavior that comes about through obedience to orders.

The Milgram experiment has been replicated outside the United States. These replications, however, are almost wholly confined to subjects in European or European-descended countries. To date, only Shanab and Yahya (1978) have replicated the Milgram experiment with non-European subjects, these being 48 students at the University of Jordan in Amman. The Jordanian subjects resembled Milgram’s in being just as willing to inflict pain under orders (proportion = 62.5%). But they differed in being more willing to inflict pain on their own initiative. When allowed to choose the shock levels, 12.5% of the Jordanians delivered shocks right up to the top end of the scale.

One in eight Jordanians is a sadist? And these were university students, presumably the cream of Jordanian society. How would the experiment have turned out if done with Bedouins, for instance, or some other group where the State has only recently monopolized the use of violence?

This question is addressed with respect to Algerians by Frantz Fanon. Better known as a political thinker, Fanon was also a psychoanalyst who knew the literature on violence in his adopted country and who reviewed it in a chapter of his book Les damnés de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth). He first discussed the incidence of violent crime:

It’s a fact, the magistrates will tell you, that four fifths of the cases heard involve assault and battery. The crime rate in Algeria is one of the highest in the world, they claim. There are no petty delinquents. When the Algerian, and this applies to all North Africans, puts himself on the wrong side of the law, he always goes to extremes (Fanon, 2004, p. 222)

The acts of violence also show less restraint and the precipitating causes seem banal:

Autopsies undeniably establish this fact: the killer gives the impression he wanted to kill an incalculable number of times given the equal deadliness of the wounds inflicted.

… Very often the magistrates and police officers are stunned by the motives for the murder: a gesture, an allusion, an ambiguous remark, a quarrel over the ownership of an olive tree or an animal that has strayed a few feet. The search for the cause, which is expected to justify and pin down the murder, in some cases a double or triple murder, turns up a hopelessly trivial motive. Hence the frequent impression that the community is hiding the real motives.
(Fanon, 2004, p. 222)

These facts were not challenged by Fanon, who attributed them to the effects of colonialism. As proof, he argued that violent crime was declining among Algerians established in France:

Yes, the Algerian spontaneously acknowledged the magistrates and police officers were right. This narcissistic aspect of Algerian criminality as a manifestation of genuine virility had to be tackled again and reconsidered in the light of colonial history. By showing, for example, how the criminality of the Algerians in France fundamentally differed from the criminality of the Algerians directly subjected to colonial exploitation. (Fanon, 2004, p. 229)

Frantz Fanon wrote the above thoughts in 1961. Like Stanley Milgram, he was writing at a time when State violence seemed to be the main problem and when individual violence could plausibly be seen as a State-induced pathology. If they were still alive, would the two of them think differently today?


Blass, T. (2000) “The Milgram paradigm after 35 years: Some things we know about obedience to authority”, in T. Blass (ed.) Obedience to Authority: Current Perspectives on the Milgram Paradigm, pp. 35-60, Lawrence Erlbaum.

Fanon, F. (2004). The Wretched of the Earth, New York: Grove Press.

Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to Authority. New York: Harper & Row.

Shanab, M.E. & Yahya, K.A. (1978). A cross-cultural study of obedience, Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 11, 267-269.


Tod said...

Milgram told Americans their civilisation was morally blind and that they'd go along with crimes against humanity because he thought that, when acting collectively, they represented a very specific danger. Criminal violence is in many ways the opposite of what Milgram - and those promoting his work - were worried about. The uproar about waterboarding did not come from the intellectual heirs of Adorno and Milgram; their opposition was conditional on the identity of the victims.

Fanon would probably fall into the same category; he thought violence gave the oppressed back their self respect and sense of agency.

It is interesting that the First known laws protecting animals were the work of the Puritans.

Anonymous said...

Milgram tried to blame it on MALE aggression? Interesting, because there was another experiment done with a real puppy instead of a human actor and they found that ALL of the women shocked it at the highest voltage:

Peter Frost said...


Milgram was being consistent with the postwar Zeitgeist. People were convinced there would be another world war in which innocent people would be slaughtered as a matter of course. I remember hearing a Frank Zappa song that seemed to refer to the Milgram experiment ("And they thought it couldn't happen here. They were so sure it couldn't happen here ...")


Milgram found no sex differences in his results. This seems to be the general finding if we look at all of the Milgram-type studies. Some studies found women to be more obedient than men whereas others found men to be more obedient than women.

Tod said...

Whatever leads to shocking the victim at the highest level cannot be explained by autonomously generated aggression but needs to be explained by the transformation of behavior that comes about through obedience to orders.

Does that deal with Pinker's point - that many people have fantasies of killing those they dislike - to my way of thinking it's still a telling indication that 'autonomously generated aggression' is instinctive and powerful. That aggression forces its way into the consciousness as fantasy - like sexual impulses - suggests it is a similarly powerful drive. The simplest explaination for why men don't act on their violent impulses would be a lack of animal courage; an increase in neuroticism or negative thoughts and feelings towards harming others (maybe this trait is stronger in some parts of the world than others).

In the 'choose the voltage' part of Milgram's experiment those selecting the shock levels were in the very artificial position of being able to choose to inflict maximum pain and injury at no extra risk to themselves. In practice to be violent almost always requires the acceptance of a certain risk.

A secondary danger, and something that a man would be wary of, would be acquiring a reputation for being needlesly violent because then every disagreement would be fraught with danger: those he argued with would start thinking pre-emptive homocide. A tendency to select the low shocks may stem from social adaptation to these dangers, especially as the shockee was presented as an innocent not deserving of hostile treatment.

Tod said...

When not acting under orders violence is too risky; that's the difference. Knife- welding medieval peasants were taking incredible risks with their brawls. Many of these fights were over gambling debts; violent men like to take risks. It would be interesting to know if gambling has declined since early Medieval times.

There is still a need to participate in violence judging by the amount in films, it may get called ironic like with Tarentino but it serves the same function as depictions of real life events (Mesrine). Even when the heroes are policemen in these stories they are usually presented as not obedient to the authority they nominally represent,("Renegade cop, plays by his own rules"). The hero makes it 'personal' so that the violence is authentic, Frantz Fanon style.