So, I just heard a CBC DNTO interview with Gina Perry, an Australian writer who just published a book on the Milgram experiments called Behind the Shock Machine. I haven’t read the book yet, but I’ll be buying a Kindle copy in a moment. I’ll review it after reading it. Perry says in the interview that she had thought that Milgram’s work was brilliant and provided incredible insight into the human condition, especially in light of the Holocaust but that upon reading Milgram’s extensively archived notes and research reports, she realized that he had largely fudged his conclusions, or at least that his conclusions were not justified based on the evidence provided by the experiments. If you want the official version of what happened during Milgram’s ‘obedience’ research, have a look at this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BcvSNg0HZwk. I don’t want to take any time here to outline Milgram’s experiments. Suffice it to say that in his mind they proved that people are willing to inflict pain on others if they are told to do so by an authority figure, lethal pain in the majority of cases. His work was inspired by his outrage at the Holocaust. He wanted to show how such a thing could happen and how easily people can be coerced into conforming to the will of authority. People, Milgram concluded, easily descend into barbarism because they have no will of their own, no resistance to authority and have a deep need to conform. Perry argues that Milgram had no right to draw these conclusions from his work. This is a very damning indictment of Milgram himself but it throws into question the now taken-for-granted (in every textbook I’ve ever seen) conclusions of his work. She argues that if Milgram had been honest, he would have reported that the subjects of his experiments were creative, determined to subvert the experimenter, sometimes understood the ‘set-up’ of the experiment and toyed with the experimenter. In fact she concludes that more people resisted the experiment’s goals and defied the experimenter than conformed to his authority. But before I go on here I want to read Perry’s book and a couple of articles on the subject that also throw light on Milgram’s work, and the work of others like Philip Zimbardo who conducted the now famous Stanford Prison Experiment. See for yourself what this was all about:
See you in a follow-up post after I read Perry and you get a chance to view the videos.
3 thoughts on “Stanley Milgram and his very controversial experiments.”
Does ultimate power corrupt ultimately?
Hi Dan, I can’t remember who said it first, maybe John Locke or Thomas Hobbes, but Gwynne Dyer, the popular historian and commentator, repeated it in his film series on war: “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I think that’s pretty much true. What absolute power does is completely subvert community. It’s focus on itself detracts completely from what it takes to build community and create a sense of belonging based on mutual respect and support. Humans are very social animals and must be free to innovate but also to belong to a group of caring individuals. Absolute power resists challenge to it from inside the group or outside. It demands complicity. It cannot but destroy itself because it’s very existence is an affront to humanity. There have been instances in history of people or small cabals holding absolute power, but they are generally short lived. Unfortunately they are also usually highly destructive and cause untold misery and hardship. There’s a lot more to it than this. I’d recommend you read Ernest Becker’s Escape From Evil. He has a very good grasp of the issues and addresses specifically the power Hitler had and where it led. What’s ironic, in a sense, is that absolute power generally arises slowly in societies where there are specific grievances that irk people. Power, as it seizes control, turns on many of its early supporters and then turns on everyone. Power doesn’t exist in a social vacuum, but once it becomes absolute, it does. Nothing matters anymore except to hold on to power and even get more and more of it. Human beings are special in the animal world. We’re the only ones who develop tyranny and serious concentrations of power.
Very interesting experiments, I remember studying them in college. Quite challenging findings, for the time!
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