You could say we are puppets. But I believe we are puppets with perception, with awareness. Sometimes we can see the strings. And perhaps our awareness is the first step in our liberation.
It’s spring time down here, and it’s film festival time. And with the film festival the world comes knocking at my back door. I’ve seen five.
One in particular has got me googling and talking and thinking: Experimenter, the Stanley Milgrim Story.
Milgrim was a research psychologist, a leader in the field of social psychology back in the 1960s. His research is famous, or infamous, depending on your point of view.
I studied social psychology as an undergrad. I participated in social research and then at post-grad level conducted my own small-scale research. You could say I have an interest in the field, although it’s been a while since I graced the hollowed halls of that particular version of academia. I do remember reading about the Milgrim experiments. And, I remember feeling uneasy at the time.
Milgrim is the chap who researched obedience. He was inspired by the claims of Eichmann, and many other Nazis, that they were merely following orders. Using what Milgrim said was non-forceful instruction, participants were required to administer electric shocks to others. Shocks powerful enough to cause real harm, even death—if they had been delivered. The participants could hear the victims crying out in pain, begging for the experiment to stop.
What they didn’t know was that they were being hoaxed—in the interests of social research, mind. For the greater good and all that.
Milgrim and his compatriots at Yale had predicted only 1-3% of the research participants would deliver the maximum strength shocks. In fact, it’s said Milgrim found that 66% participated right to the end. Those that did so where forced to confront their own capacity to hurt others. Milgrim’s records show that many of them were deeply disturbed by this. (This, in and of itself, is a problem. Participants were harmed in this research. It’s widely accepted today that the methodology is unethical. However, it was replicated, in modified form, as recently as the late 2000s. (Cherry, K. A. (2008). The Milgram obedience experiment. Retrieved from http://psychology.about.com/od/socialinfluence/fl/What-Is-Obedience.htm)
In an interesting parallel, the screenplay breaks through genre. Milgrim addresses the viewer directly, giving the impression of being inside his head, experiencing his thoughts. Interestingly, his widow who is played by Wynona Ryder, makes a cameo appearance at the end. Indeed, it’s difficult to tell whether this film is a story or a documentary.
Although the film shows Milgrim’s compatriots questioning the ethics of the research methods, what it didn’t explore in any detail, is that there’s real controversy about the actual findings.
The dominant story about Milgrim’s research has made it into the public domain, i.e., that the majority of us capitulate to instructions, to authority, even if it means harming others.
But do we? Would we? Can the results of an experiment in a social scientist’s lab explain human behaviour? Especially human behaviour during war time, when so many forces are at play, forces designed to enhance social cohesion and obedience, and which are predicated on your side winning?
Subsequent researchers have found that some of Milgrim’s research subjects quickly realised they were being tricked and played along with the researchers. (Cherry, K.A, 2008.)
Hah! How’s that for sabotage?
Some believe Milgrim was a genius. Others have critically examined his methodology. They say tapes of the interviews held in the Yale archives reveal that researchers did not stay on script and the subjects were coerced and bullied. (Cherry, K.A , 2008)
Milgrim lost personal credibility as a result of the research. The film has two evocative scenes depicting this. In the first he walks into a class of graduate students and tells them President Kennedy has been shot. They think it’s another of his hoaxes. And, his own wife began to question his integrity, asking: Is this what you really think, or what you think you should be saying.
For me, the movie was fascinating.
It was also disturbing. Why? Because, although it does show the controversy around the ethics of Milgrim’s research, the viewer was left asking the question of themselves, Well, would you do that? Deliver those shocks? The movie presents the research outcomes as valid. As someone commented to me, at least we know this stuff, now.
Hmmm … Do we?
What do you think?
Director/Screenplay: Michael Almereyda
Categories: On Life