It’s not my fault.

January 8, 2007 | By | 16 Replies More

Friday evening, I did something I rarely do: I watched one of those pseudo-news shows, the kind that generally focus on soft news that everybody but me seems to be interested in.  Generally it is some kind of pop culture junk like Brittany’s latest antic (WHO is Brittany anyway and why does everyone but me know her by first name?).  But a Friday night spent under a cozy quilt, nursing a slight malaise left from New Year’s, left me sprawled in a recliner with a TV remote and nothing worth watching.  I happened to catch Primetime, an ABC show that left me deeply disturbed.

The show was about the Milgram experiment conducted in the early 60s and a 2006 similar replication of the experiment.  In 1961, just a few months after the trial of Adolf Eichmann began, the Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram began an experiment to test to what degree people would obey authority even when it was in direct conflict with their personal beliefs.

The subjects of the experiment were people like you and me.  They were asked to participate in experiment about whether pain assisted the learning process.  The second individual, complicit in the experiment, was set up in another room as the “student.”  The “teacher”, the actual subject of the experiment, was placed in front of a panel of switches labeled with increasing voltage.  Whenever the “student” missed a question, the teacher was directed to flip the next highest voltage switch, giving the student an apparent electric shock.  The teacher could not see the student, but could hear the student’s responses. 

There was no actual voltage applied to the student, but the student gave increasingly painful cries, and as the experiment proceeded, the students began to plea that the experiment end.  In an amazing number of cases, the teacher, despite the cries and entreaties of the student, continued to give increasing shocks.  The experiment found: 

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.

The experiment was not repeated for over 40 years.  It wasn’t repeated because of the psychological trauma that the experiment caused to the “teachers.”  Primetime said they wanted to know if people today would continue to obey an authority figure even if they thought it meant hurting someone.  The test was modified somewhat, in an attempt to avoid the psychological harm the first experiment caused to the teachers, so rather than going to 450 volts, the teachers were asked to go only to 150 volts.  80 percent or so of the original subjects would go to the end if they got to the 150 volt mark. 

In the recent experiment, each student told the researcher, in the presence of the teacher, that he or she suffered from a heart problem.  The researcher assured the student, again in the presence of the teacher, that the experiment was harmless.  The experimenter told both that the test could be discontinued at any time, that they would get paid whether the test was complete or not.  Then during the experiment, if the teacher asked to discontinue, the experimenter simply said that the test needed to continue. The experimenter made no threats, no gestures of threat, or any particular emotion at all.  He simply said the test needed to continue.

Despite believing the student suffered a heart problem, despite the cries of pain, despite the pleas to cease, despite any physical or indeed emotional pressure to continue, the majority of subjects continued to administer the shocks.

We have apparently learned nothing about the evil that obedience to authority can be.  It is not a horrible shock to me, given the evidence of torture at the hands of our soldiers, but it is nonetheless a disturbing result.   No one could predict who would be willing to fulfill the experiment and who would not.  People of both genders, all races, social status etc., were willing to continue.  They did find that women were actually more likely to proceed than men.

The conclusion reached in this experiment was that the people who refused to continue with the apparently painful experiment had one significant difference from those who would continue.  The people who refused felt responsible for their actions. 

The people who would continue, declined any responsibility for their actions.  The people who would continue told the researchers that the pain was not their fault, that they were simply a conduit at the switches, and that it was the experimenters who shouldered the blame.  In one of the videotaped sessions, the teacher, who has just heard the student complain of his chest hurting (remember the student has previously mentioned a pre-existing heart condition) and beg for the experiment to stop, is heard asking the experimenter, “who is to blame here if something goes wrong?”  When the experimenter says that he (the experimenter) is to blame, the teacher says “that’s all I needed to know” and continues the experiment to the end.

The people who refused to continue said they felt responsible for the pain they were causing.  They accepted responsibility for flipping those switches.  One subject continued despite some cries of pain, but flatly refused once the student asked that the experiment stop.  That subject said once the experiment was no longer consensual, he had to stop.  This subject was described as a bit of a non-conformist.  How sad that it takes a non conformist to rebel against hurting another, but it supports my belief that some healthy disrespect for authority is a good thing.

It is all about personal responsibility.  What kind of person can flip a switch that might kill someone and yet take no responsibility for his or her actions?  What kind of person can listen to someone scream as they torture them, and yet blame someone else?  The experimenter in this test had absolutely no control over the life of the teacher.  There were no threats made against the teacher, and in fact the teacher was told that they would be paid for their time whether or not the experiment was completed.

I spent some time living in Europe and remember discussing torture and the Nazis with some German friends.  The grandparents of one of my German friends lived near Dachau during World War II.  She said her grandparents always claimed they had no idea what was going on at the concentration camp not many miles away.  I always doubted the truth of that statement.  Now I wonder if it matters at all.  If people are actually willing to hurt someone else just because they’re told to do so, it isn’t much worse to simply ignore it.


Tags: , , ,

Category: Current Events, Good and Evil, History, Iraq

About the Author ()

My life’s goal is to make a difference; to help those stuck in the mire of poverty and ignorance. I am an advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves, whether from ignorance, from lack of eloquence or simple lack of opportunity.

Comments (16)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Scholar says:

    I also saw the primetime show, or at least part of it as I was flipping channels. That "Brittany" they are talking about is Britney Spears, a teen pop idol from about 5 years ago, who has recently married, given birth, divorced, and been hanging out with Paris Hilton (sans undergarments).

    If you ever saw the movie Ghostbusters, there is a funny scene with Bill Murray administering a similar test. He is testing for psychic ability, and as the test progresses, his subject becomes more and more agitated, and actually performs psychic feats in hopes of avoiding the next shock. Unfortunately, Bill Murray isn't really paying attention to the results, so he continues shocking the guy even though he was actually "guessing" correctly by that point.

    In terms of the guy who is responsible for pulling the switch on the electric chair, or administering the lethal injection…is that the same? Should he be the one who is held morally responsible, or the judge, or the jury? Maybe thats why they sometimes have 3 people pull the switch, so it is more ambiguous.

    That brings to mind the movie, "The Green Mile" with Tom Hanks. I saw the movie and also listened to it on audio tape. The audio tape is about 13 hours long, and I preferred it when compared to the movie. Its a really great story about death row, only the ending becomes a bit "supernatural" and kinda lost me personally, but I still recommend it highly. Has some great characters, emotions, excitement, mystery.

    My family history includes stories of escaping the holocaust, and some who didn't. One of the greatest works I have witnessed is "Band of Brothers" a ten part series about WWII, told from the eyes of a group of American soldiers, but which pays attention to historical details about the Nazis. Tom Hanks was the producer and director, I believe. I give it 5 stars out of 5.

  2. Mary says:

    Your post brings to mind the series of "Conversations with God" books by Neale Donald Walsch. At one point, God, speaking through Neale, says that Hitler went to heaven. Of course, Neale is astonished about this, but God's reply is that if Hitler didn't go to heaven, neither did all of those people who carried out his orders. Until we can teach people that they are responsible for their actions, that's it's not all about the authority figure, we are going to continue to deal with many of the problems that exist on this earth – the Iraq War, for one. How many of us believed the President, or only semi-believed his claim of WMDs and went along anyway? How about that Congress, who also gave up their own authority so they wouldn't be held responsible?

  3. Theonly2 says:

    I'm not sure if that opening paragraph is serious or sarcastic. If it's serious, than it's probably one of the more pretentious paragraphs I've read in a while. If it's sarcastic (i.e., if you really do know who Brittany is and do sometimes watch those shows), well, then, kudos for the attempt, but you gotta work on your sarcasm.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Stanley Milgram’s own comments on his experiments are well worth reading. Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View is readily available. Here's a sampling:

    A commonly offered explanation is that those who shocked the victim at the most severe level were monsters, the sadistic fringe of society. But if one considers that almost two-thirds of the participants fall into the category of ‘obedient’ subjects, and that they represented ordinary people drawn from working, managerial, and professional classes, the argument becomes very shaky.

    (p. 5).

    Milgram concluded that

    perhaps, the most fundamental lesson of our study [was that] ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority. A variety of inhibitions against disobeying authority come into play and successfully keep the person in his place.


    The obedience is triggered by a set of “‘binding factors’ that lock the subject into the situation. “They include such factors as politeness on his part, his desire to uphold his initial promise of aid to the experimenter and the awkwardness of withdrawal.” (p. 7)

    According to Milgram, a shift in viewpoint is the key to triggering obedience: “The essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and he therefore no longer regards himself as responsible for his actions. Once this critical shift of viewpoint has occurred in the person, all of the essential features of obedience follow.” (p. xii)

    One adjustment in the participants’ thinking which keeps the participant obeying the experimenter is the

    tendency of the individual to become so absorbed in the narrow technical aspects of the task that he loses sight of its broader consequences. Although a person acting under authority performs actions that seem to violate standards of conscience, it would not be true to say that he loses his moral sense. Instead, it acquires a radically different focus . . . [H]is moral concern now shifts to a consideration of how well he is living up to the expectations that the authority has of him.

    (pp. 7 & 8 ).

    Milgram himself was surprised and dismayed by the results of his controversial studies.

    The major problem for the subject is to recapture control of his own regnant processes once he has committed them to the purposes of the experimenter. The difficulty this entails represents the poignant and in some degree tragic element in the situation under study, for nothing is bleaker than the sight of a person striving yet not fully able to control his own behavior in a situation of consequence to him.

    (p. xiii).

    The basic moral principle at risk in Milgram’s experiments was simple: do not harm innocent human beings. Once the participants had focused on the immediate task of satisfying the professor, however, many of them never revisited that principle with regard to the person they were “shocking.” Many others did attend to basic moral principles, protesting their own actions, but many of them were quickly brought back into line by the experimenter’s simple request that they should “continue.”

    In my previous job as an investigator and prosecutor of consumer fraud for the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, I repeatedly witnessed the incredible power of the assertion of authority. Devious telemarketers have repeatedly pulled off scams by simply cold-calling people and telling them to send money for some “good cause.” Professional scam artists know that a significant percentage of people, many of them quite intelligent, simply cannot hang up their telephones, unless and until given permission by the demanding strangers. Recently, in my job as an attorney, I have filed suits against payday lenders and title loan shops charging their customers 300% or 400% interest or more. A “Just sign here.” from a mini-authority figure behind the counter (coupled with a dose of self-interest) successfully invites thousands of people to willingly commit financial suicide.

    The high-degree of obedience observed by Milgram dovetails with a phenomenon Hannah Arendt termed the “banality of evil.” Both behaviors constitute exploitations of human attentional limitations, I believe.  They both certainly involve an inhibited thought process or, at least, a distracted one. The difference is a matter of emphasis. For Arendt, Eichmann’s focus was the habituation of low-level bureaucratic tasks, while Milgram’s subjects were led to attend to the experimenter’s periodic requests.  Bureaucratic itineraries and emotionless requests by an authority figures can cause many people (who, prior to being put in these situations, showed no propensities to initiate violence) to abdicate their attention away from basic moral principles that they hold dear. They don't act on their treasured moral principles in these two examples (again, the principle is don't harm others) because they've been tricked into not thinking about them. A series of distractions to attention can cause humans to shift their limited attention away from the big picture.  Mental sleight of hand.

    The solution, in my opinion, is that we need to train ourselves to attend to these well known human frailties. We all have potentially lethal mental Achilles’ heels. We are creatures of limited attention, and we must be careful to not put all of our eggs in any one basket. We need to condition ourselves to check ourselves periodically—are we remembering to visit a variety of perspectives when absorbed in a trying situation? In particular, we must never cave, without question, to any authority figures. When large groups of people do this, things like the invasion of Iraq can result.

    As you suggest, Deb, we should also let our youngsters in on secret that many of us eventually learn: that rebelling against authority figures is sometimes good.

  5. Ebonmuse says:

    Argh, I've been scooped! I was in the process of writing a post on this very same topic when I happened to read this.

    Oh well, I think I'll write mine anyway. This is an important enough experiment that its lessons bear repeating…

  6. Deb says:

    Ebonmuse: If there is a contest, it is only who can make more people think the most, so fire away. I look forward to your post.

    Theonly2: I don't think it is pretentious to not care enough about pop culture to keep track of pop icons. I have heard the name Brittany Spears (or however her name is spelled), but I have no idea what she has done to earn notariety. If, as Scholar described in his/her comment, she is someone who has married, divorced, had children and did some modeling when she was young, it is no wonder I don't know who she is. In my book, that isn't nearly enough to make me think she's noteworthy.

    No one can know it all, and we're all ignorant about something. I'm okay with being ignorant about Brittany and Jay-Lo and whoever else fits that mold.

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    It intrigues me how fame often begets more fame, rocketing people like "Brittany and Jay-Lo and whoever else fits that mold" to the dizzying heights of fame. I think that their celebrity is more interesting than they are. See this on the internet celebrity of Tila Tequila, who has accomplished essentially nothing at all:

    We have limited hours on this fragile planet, with much of importance needed to be accomplished. It is in that context that Deb (and I) don't know much about "Brittany and Jay-Lo and whoever else fits that mold." Since it has become an issue here, though, I will dedicate one minute each to exploring them on Wikipedia . . .

  8. Dan Klarmann says:

    Since I've stopped watching TV, I can't even name the current batch of "reality" shows that propel moderately competent contestants from obscurity to celebrity.

    How in the world did that Hilton heiress get talked into doing one of those shows? I understand her doing an amateur porn video. But a reality show???

  9. Dan Klarmann says:

    Back to the main topic: The Milgram experiment, and the whole "not my fault" issue is related to studies in the last ten years that demonstrate that hypnotism doesn't exist. Freud named this mono-manic state that Mesmer induced in his patients. It was almost a century later that researchers could actually monitor the brain in and out of this "state" and see what it really is.

    It turned out that the state of particular suggestibility is not an unusual nor special mode of operation in the human brain. As pack animals (as in wolf, not mule), we easily drop into the role of doing what is expected of us. If we focus on one individual to tell us what to do, we make it "right" in our minds, and do it. It is essentially a part of the surrender reflex.

    Several experiments on suggestibility showed that people who consciously are just "playing along" are every bit as susceptible to performing odd deeds as those in the hypnotic state. Subjects who neither try to play along, nor get hypnotized are much less suggestible to doing atypical things, but still a long way from zero.

    See articles by Michael R. Nash in Scientific American, July 2001 and May 2005, for example.

  10. Park Teter says:

    In the following poem I quote Hannah Arendt, thus:


    To Auschwitz and to Buchenwald

    God led his chosen people,

    To demonstrate, in Hanna's words,

    "The banality of evil."

    Now those who praise this loving God

    And those who praise Reality,

    Both build bombs to demonstrate

    The evil of banality.

    Another of my poems includes, among other ideas, the absurdity and horror of mass behavior in which the individual is at the mercy of gods or governments:


    Before the gates of Paradise

    Queues of naked refugees

    Pledge allegiance to the skies

    While saints examine them for fleas.

    Angels herd the milling crowds,

    A rumor keeps alive their hope,

    Before they're marched into the clouds

    Each receives a bar of soap.

    Another poem, CORPORAL PUNISHMENT, begins: "We are all on the train to Auschwitz" It can be found at

  11. Erika Price says:

    Milgram played with a lot of variables after the first experiment. He found that people obeyed more and for a longer duration of the experiment if the instructions came from a person in a lab coat or any other official-looking attire, as compared with someone in casual clothes. Also, if the participant "teacher" could actually see the learner pretending to writhe in pain, they didn't carry on the experiment quite as far.

  12. Lawrence Swaim says:

    Dear Friends,

    I am writing a book about evil, with a long chapter on systemic evil that attempts to analyze the Milgram study. I believe that the behavior of the "teachers" can be explained by a different causal factor than simply obedience, although obedience was important. But a big problems exists in understanding whether people in the Milgram experiment were harmed or not. Sadly, Milgram's own follow-up studies were somewhat self-serving, and there is some evidence that many of the "teachers" did not understand what had happened. Milgram also played down the possibility that he had harmed people, for obvious reasons–if it were true that he had, he is just as guilty as the people who shocked the "learners" right up to 450, and his famous study becomes an examination of Milgram's own capacity for evil, along with the "teachers."

    Does anybody have any information about people who may have been harmed by the Milgram study? Many people assume that some were, but solid information is hard to come by. Milgram himself claimed to own letters from people thanking him for their participation in his study, but I don't know if they actually exist. And his follow-up interviews were not explicit enough about the subject that Milgram was really interested in, which was the capacity of a person to torture to death a complete stranger.

    Incidentally, the best account of a former "teacher" in the Milgram study for me is that of Joseph Dimow. (See his essay in Jewish Currents, January 2004.) He instantly recognized that he was the subject of an experiment that had to do with the human capacity for evil, and refused to go on. He believes he could see through the experiment so quickly because he came from a leftwing home where power and authority were regularly deconstructed in family conversations. Secondly, he had been in a Marxist-Leninist organization at one time and had used the same kind of authority, and experienced it being used on himself.

    Info about persons harmed in the Milgram would be greatly appreciated. Also perhaps the Stanford study, although there is already more anecdotal info about that than Milgram.

    L. Swaim

  13. Lawrence Swaim says:


    The short poem THE FINAL POLLUTION was both diabolical and liberating. I'll always carry that image with me–a bunch of faithful religionists lined up before the pearly gates, except that inside awaits the gas chambers of some celestial Nazi. What a vision of the New Earth, one even worse than this one!

    Or as Brecht once said, "He who smiles hasn't yet heard the bad news."

    Black humor is the most liberating kind.

    My beautiful first wife, long since dead of cancer, specialized in such nightmare visions. She was a German Jew who was deep, deep, deep into this darkest kind of black humor: "Hope for the best and prepare for the worst," was her motto. She would love the image of a genocidal God, except that she would have insisted such a Diety must be Christian.

    And of course she'd be right.

    I've gotten fresh info on Milgram's study and his subjects. Many were indeed harmed, but felt glad afterwards that they'd learned something priceless about themselves, and about humanity. (Eighty-five percent reported being happy they'd participated, whereas slightly more than one percent regretted participating.) I'm gradually coming to the conclusion that Milgram's study can be justified, however much suffering it caused to its naive subjects, because any species that has both aggression and the ability to make choices must have at least one Milgram-type study to demonstrate the gravity of their situation. I'm glad today's experimental ethics prevents more of such studies, however.

    As for celebrities: a famous student of media and culture heroes was fascinated by the fact that Zha Zha Gabor kept getting into the newspaper, even though she hadn't made a movie, recorded anything, or been on network TV for at least a couple of decades. One reason was that she had the bad habit, along with many other Hungarian aristocrats, of slapping people she considered her social inferiors. She slapped a Hollywood cop and could barely be restrained from slapping the judge.

    This same student of culture and media came to another conclusion as to why Zha Zha kept getting so much ink in daily journalism and the trade journals. She was, he wrote, "famous for being famous…"

    Larry Swaim

  14. Erika Price says:

    Lawrence: you mention a man who resisted Milgram's studies, and saw through them because of his liberal upbringing. More recent research backs that up, too.

    Studies by Pyszczynski, Solomon and Greenberg (described in their book In The Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror) found that when people feel threatened, they usually become more prejudiced against those of a different group, whether religious, racial, or of national origin. Yet when people raised with liberal, tolerant backgrounds and values meet a sense of terror or a strong threat, they become more welcoming of those different from themselves, less punitive, and more understanding. It looks like the right kind of cultural backbone can effectively "immunize" a person against some sorts of "evil" behavior.

  15. Erich Vieth says:

    "When you think of the long and gloomy history of man, you will find more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion."

    C. P. Snow (1905 – 1980)

  16. Erich Vieth says:

    Some things never change. Scientists said on Friday they had replicated an experiment in which people obediently delivered painful shocks to others if encouraged to do so by authority figures.

    Seventy percent of volunteers continued to administer electrical shocks — or at least they believed they were doing so — even after an actor claimed they were painful, Jerry Burger of Santa Clara University in California found. The obedience rates in the new study were only slightly statistically lower than in the notorious original experiments, which were conducted in the early 1960s by Yale University professor Stanley Milgram.

Leave a Reply