Did the Infamous Milgram Study Paint Humanity as Darker than We Are?

Rob Wipond
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A now-infamous 1961 study by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram showed how quickly ordinary people, when pressed by an authority figure, would wilfully torture others with powerful electric shocks. However, a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate student has re-examined Milgram’s records and, in a new study in the British Journal of Social Psychology, has suggested that Milgram’s analysis cloaked what really happened.

Milgram’s original analysis divided his subjects into just two categories: obedient or disobedient. But after reviewing detailed transcripts of 117 of the original sessions from Milgram’s study, Matthew Hollander discovered that many of the participants, even ones that complied to administering apparent torture, engaged in many and varied forms of resistance along the way.

“The majority did cave, and follow the experimenter’s orders,” Hollander said in a press release. “But a good number of people resisted, and I’ve found particular ways they did that, including ways of resisting that they share with the people who ultimately complied.”

Hollander found study subjects “resorting to silence and hesitation, groaning and sighing to display the effort it took to comply,” and stalling with “(typically uncomfortable) laughter.” Some people stalled by “talking to the recipient of the shocks and by addressing their concerns to the experimenter.” And many, even among the obedient, did at times stop and refuse to continue at least temporarily.

Hollander suggested Milgram had painted a picture that lacked “nuance,” and these findings could be used to help understand how to strengthen methods of resistance to authority in people.

(Abstract) The repertoire of resistance: Non-compliance with directives in Milgram’s ‘obedience’ experiments (Hollander, M. British Journal of Social Psychology. Published online early January 9, 2015. DOI: 10.1111/bjso.12099)

14 COMMENTS

  1. “Did the Infamous Milgram Study Paint Humanity as Darker than We Are?”
    No, it was pretty accurate. What matters in the end was if people did comply and tortured someone or not. Whether they were feeling uneasy about it or not that’s little concern to the victim. I am pretty sure there are a lot of people in teh military, CIA, NSA etc who get a bit queasy doing what they do but there are not many Snowdens and Mannings out there.

    • Well it might be of small comfort if the so-called torture was administered in lower doses, or delayed, or so on.

      In any case the phenomenon being studied was uncritical obedience, which does make it relevant that many participants expressed at least passive noncompliance strategies (because it teaches us that efforts to resist more explicitly might not be as unpopular as we imagine).

      (Condemning humans as bad does *not* always lead to better moral behavior.)

      • Well, I’d argue it was pretty uncritical – the guys did not leave and shut the door or at the very least demand to be explained what is going on, why these experiments are being done etc. Not to mention check on the guy they “tortured”. Being a bit cringy and hesitant does not pass a bar of being critical for me.
        Passive noncompliance are good when you’re in a situation that severe harm can occur to you if you disobey. That were not the conditions of the experiment.
        “Condemning humans as bad does *not* always lead to better moral behavior.”
        Neither does pretending we are lovely creatures.

  2. That’s been known all along. Some people refused to take the check, and only one person— a Dutch man who had lived in the Netherlands during WW II— asked them who they were and what they were doing. Sadly, this experiment has been repeated with children in various parts of the world and the results were the same. Of course, children are generally required to obey adults, it’s just that few people seem to grow out of it.

  3. The bottom line is, whether they expressed discomfort or not, they ultimately went along with the program despite their internal sense that it was wrong. That was the real lesson of the experiment. Not that people are horribly sociopathic on the average, but that when told by an authority figure that something was acceptable or necessary, even if they found it personally repugnant to do so, few could seem to muster up the courage to refuse to participate, even in the absence of any looming punishment. If we add in additional negative consequences for failing to comply, and the odds of a human acting against his/her own conscience in the face of authority directing them to do so seems sadly to be very small.

    — Steve

    • I wouldn’t say I am innately an anti-authoritarian type, personally. I would describe myself as an open minded person who believes that all should treat all others as they’d like to be treated.

      But, due to inappropriate circumstances I ran into, and the resultant research and understanding of the almost unfathomable in scope crimes being committed against so many people, especially children, by the psycho / pharmaceutical industries. The appalling injustices I found, “made a rebel of a careless man’s careful daughter.” Dad told me he knew the psychiatrists were frauds, only after I’d escaped.

      I think we have a lack of strong willed, mutually respectful people in general. And, obviously, we have too many unscrupulous and unethical people at the top.