On Life

On Obedience: “Experimenter—the Stanley Milgrim Story”.

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.
Stanley Milgrim


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?

USA 2015/90mins
Director/Screenplay: Michael Almereyda

13 replies »

  1. This seems like such a fascinating movie…I can not wait to see it, as it shows us a bizarre part of human nature and conditioning…and of what we really do not know about ourselves. That is scary. Thank you…wow.


  2. A great post, provoking a lot of thought. I went to a conference once where the presenter tried to create hostilities between participants: I refused to “play”, but I’m not sure at all I would do the same under pressure in the real world. I only have to look at my failure to act personally, say, in welcoming Syrian refugees, to doubt my capacity to act morally. As for doing the right thing when my survival was threatened? I doubt it very much. People who do are on the continuum of sainthood, I reckon. Have you read Primo Levi’s “If this is a man”? Howard Jacobsen writes a thoughtful review


    It’s a good antidote to despair at what humans may do to each other, and it makes mere experiments seem offensive and gratuitous.


    • Hello morselsandscraps, Thanks so much for this recommendation. I haven’t read it and think perhaps, I should. From a quick glance at the review I think I’d find it an interesting read. I have, however, read Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning’. His experiences in a concentration camp hugely influenced his work as a psychiatrist, leading him to conclude that no matter the circumstances we do have control over our attitude, that we retain the ability to choose our way.

      Have you seen the documentary”Blindspot”? It was an interview with Hitler’s secretary, Trudl Junge. It was very simple. Only her talking, for almost ninety minutes, staring into the camera. It was absolutely gripping. I’ve never forgotten it, and probably never will. I think it provided much more insight into the impact of large social forces on individuals than any research ever could.


  3. One thing I was never clear about was the make-up of the sample tested. Was it representative of all ages, genders, religions, ethnic groups? What I’ve found over the years is that often researchers use a whole group that is already connected in some way, which can totally skew the results.

    In Germany many feared for their family’s and own safety. Jews were not the only people targeted. The truth is that heroes are considered heroes because they are exceptional.
    Also, many people do trust certain authority figures and would not believe they are hurting people.

    In the Catholic Church for a very very long time women, even already having many children, but now with a life threatening condition should she have another child, were told it was wrong to use birth control, wrong to have a hysterectomy, wrong to deny her husband sex, and that many children ended up with very good step mothers.

    I know this is true personally. I remember deciding that if I truly believed God wanted me dead for some good reason, I was willing, but I wasn’t willing to die for a man-made rule by a world of men who pretty much believed women were not only dispensable, but the root of evil in the world.


    • Hello Eileen, From what I remember, the research was described as including a cross section of people from all walks of life. I suspect that would be interpreted in rather a different way, now. Thankfully, even with these distrubing results, 44% of people refused to continue with the research. If nothing else, it’s a reminder to step back and try to think of the bigger picture, rather than zoom in on a particular task (as in the case of the research) or teaching (as in the Church’s approach to contraception, amongst other things). In the case of the latter, that’s one of the things I find refreshing about the current Pope—he seems to put the basic tenets of the faith first.


  4. I remember reading about this in grad school in a Psychology in Business class (of all things) when we were discussing ethics. I have always questioned psychology experiments. I think I’ve always felt that the results could be manipulated, and I seriously question the theories and recommendations made based on these experiments. This sounds like an interesting movie, and I appreciate your informed review.


    • Hi Dan, It’s not often that a movie gets me intrigued enough to write a post about it. This one was a doozy! Interestingly, there’s research now that shows that Milgrim may well have manipulated his results, or at least been insufficnettly rigourous about the methodology. What I find fascinating, is the suggestion hat some participants realised they were being hoaxed and went along with it. Humans are complex, thankfully, and that makes us both fascinating to research, and difficult research subjects. Which is just fine by me!


  5. Sounds like a good movie. I’ll keep my eyes open for it. I’ve read about that study. Luckily research now needs IRB review by an ethical review board. Some very unethical things were done in the name of research in the past, sadly. Interesting post. Thank you. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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