The Milgram Experiment – the born concentration camp henchmen Ruthless Criticism

Translated from Rolf Gutte/Freerk Huisken, Alles bewältigt, nichts begriffen! Nationalsozialismus im Unterricht. Eine Kritik der antifaschistischen Erziehung, VSA-Verlag, Hamburg, 2007, p. 243-50.

The Milgram Experiment –
the born concentration camp henchmen

The experiment conducted by the US social psychologist Stanley Milgram in the early 1960s which became known by his name, proved, according to its organizer, that “ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.” (p. 6) It must be amazing that this result became famous around the world, because it establishes as a scientific finding what can in any case be noticed from countless brutalities carried out on official orders: quite obviously, people will go to any lengths in the performance of duties. The “incredulous consternation” that the Milgram experiment triggered in the world is mainly due to Milgram’s assertion that “three quarters (!) of the average population can be made to shock, torture, even liquidate an innocent person completely unknown to them in absolute obedience.” The author claims that almost every human being has this disposition. For this reason, the results of the investigation are also regarded as an explanation for why ordinary German citizens took part in the crimes committed under Hitler. Consequently, this series of experiments is called the “Eichmann Experiment.” It is used to teach schoolchildren how Hitler’s fascism was able to catch on in Germany.

1. The starting point of the results of the Milgram experiment and at the same time its central hypothesis is the following observation: “Obedience is the psychological mechanism that links individual action to political purpose. It is the dispositional cement that binds men to systems of authority. Facts of recent history and observation in daily life suggest that for many people obedience may be a deeply ingrained behavior tendency, indeed a prepotent impulse overriding training in ethics, sympathy, and moral conduct.” (p. 1)

It can hardly be denied that obedience is a daily phenomenon that can be found everywhere. For Stanley Milgram, however, this statement also answers the question about the reason for this phenomenon. As a social psychologist, he is certain from the outset that this phenomenon is not a matter of a subject’s will, but rather a “psychological mechanism,” something like “dispositional cement that binds men to systems of authority.” This is a far-reaching statement that is not taken as a result from his investigations, but rather the other way around, as a premise in the experiments. This judgment is by no means self-evident because obedience is, after all, an alternative to disobedience, which also exists. Instead of looking for reasons why “ordinary citizens” accommodate themselves to an alien, fascist will, Milgram transforms the widespread phenomenon of obedience into a behavioral tendency that determines people’s “disposition” and is therefore “deeply ingrained” in them. The logic that Milgram follows is astonishingly simple: he simply deduces from appearances an inner quality that is responsible for obedience. Obedience comes from the tendency to obey, is his simple tautological way of thinking. Milgram solves the contradiction that disobedience also exists by assuming a different behavior tendency which, as acquired “moral behavior,” obstructs the “deeply ingrained behavior tendency” to obey. From what we have learned from the scientist, a disobedient tendency is responsible for disobedience. Even if one now obligingly grants that both “tendencies” exist in people, there is still the intriguing question of why one tendency emerges as the winner in a decision-making situation when both tendencies are possible behavior patterns. Stanley Milgram makes do with the construction of a “prepotent impulse.” So the winner is the predominant tendency – who would have thought? And in keeping with his previous logic, he also transforms the “prepotent” into a separate “impulse.”

Of course, he does get out of this circular thinking: after all, he has only answered the question of why people are more obedient than disobedient, for example, by once again falling back on the previously asserted “behavior tendency” to obey. He knows that it is “deeply ingrained” – certainly “deeper” than the tendency to oppose.

That this is definitely the case is evident from his finding that “some system of authority is a requirement of all communal living” (p. 1) in which obeying is an obvious reaction: “A person does not get to see the whole situation but only a small part of it, and is thus unable to act without some kind of overall direction. He yields to authority, but in doing so is alienated from his own actions.” (p. 11)

So one thing leads to another: There is a deeply ingrained tendency to obedience in people because this “psychological mechanism” proves to be somehow functional for people’s ability to get along under the conditions of modern societies and the authorities that govern them. But if, as Milgram claims here, people feel helpless in “complex situations,” look around for orientation and discover obedience to authority as a lifeline, then there is no “deeply ingrained tendency” at work in them, but rather a very conscious search for orientation. What Milgram sees as deeply ingrained in people turns out to be the result of the willful decision to want to be “capable of acting” in a system. And where he has to prove the existence of the “tendency” in man, he deduces it solely from the function that it supposedly has for him. This makes his entire system collapse like a house of cards. It is therefore pointless to ask the question of why people with this tendency only follow certain authorities, why their “dominant tendency” does not get them into trouble by simultaneously trying to submit to all authorities, which often are not very favorable to one another, why they immediately combine this obedience to one authority with the call to disobey another, etc. . . .

2. In his famous experiments, Milgram tried to prove all this. To this end, he conducted a series of experiments in which 40 test subjects were instructed to inflict increasingly severe punishment on a victim. The punishment was administered with the aid of a shock generator with switches ranging from “SLIGHT SHOCK” to “DANGER SEVERE SHOCK.” Scholars at Yale University told the subjects that this was “important and valuable scientific work” because little was known about the effect of punishment on learning. The subjects were therefore asked to follow the instructions of the experimenter and punish their “students” for incorrect answers until given severe shocks; the “students” were actors in on the experiment who sat in an “electric chair” in an adjoining room. The subjects were also told that although the shocks could be very painful, they would not cause any permanent damage. Result: The experiment worked. All the subjects took part, 26 obeyed the instructions completely and administered shocks up to the 30th switch, the rest left it at voltages between 300 and 375.

3. What amazing things did the experiment reveal? That people are prepared to torture others? Wasn’t that already known beforehand? Milgram claims that this experiment proved that his theory of the “deeply ingrained tendency to obey” in people is correct; a tendency that is even so strong that it tempts the average citizen to commit all kinds of brutalities on behalf of legitimized authorities. He therefore found his assumption confirmed and did not bother asking himself the really interesting question of what reasons people might have for behaving in this way. He also did not consider it necessary to ask the subjects about this or to pay attention to the information they voluntarily give about the reasons for their willingness to administer shocks. It is no secret at all that most people in our society are very much believers in science and rely more on scientific authorities than on their own minds. The whole experiment is based on this conviction, which aims to win over the righteous citizen with some well-known arguments for participating: it is, the experimenters proclaim to the astonished subjects, about the progress of science, i.e. about a highly honorable cause. Scientific authorities assure that every step of the (simulated) torture is intended to gain new scientific knowledge in the context of learning experiments. The test subjects are therefore given reasons not to have a guilty conscience. Aware of the responsibility one has for the success of an ultimately good cause, one can and should administer shocks.

It is not a “deeply ingrained behavior tendency” in people that has suppressed their conscience here, but rather people have allowed themselves to be convinced that there are good reasons to follow the instructions of competent authorities because they believe in science. But this answer, which lies in the arrangement of the experiment itself, does not apply – because Milgram is not interested in it.

4. Milgram would have remained an unknown Stanley M. with his suspicion, elevated to a scientific conclusion, that there is an “obedient behavior tendency” at work in humans, if the experiment he staged had not been intended and taken for a much more far-reaching finding than the one he staged. He claimed that the results of the experiment could be transferred to social reality, in which people follow inhumane instructions from authorities: “The differences in the two situations [meaning a laboratory experiment and Nazi rule] are, of course, enormous, yet the difference in scale, numbers, and political context may turn out to be relatively unimportant as long as certain essential features are retained. 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.” (p. xii)

And these “essential features” were of course also found in the obedient carrying out of the murder of Jews and other Nazi crimes; firstly because they had already been established prior to the socio-psychological experiment and secondly because the human tendency to obey is in any case a “fatal flaw nature has designed into us” and is always reproduced when people are bound to “malignant systems of authority.” (p. 188). With this explanation of why people let themselves be used as instruments of legitimized authorities – and Milgram makes no distinction between the butcheries in the Vietnam War and those under Hitler – the so-called normal person is in any case given a general absolution in terms of participation and obedience. As submissive executors of authoritative instructions, they follow a behavior tendency to obey that is ultimately beyond their control, a tendency that is removed from their own morally determined will.

On the other hand, he can’t find any reason to criticize authorized and appointed authorities because, as a person incapable of understanding, he is referred to and dependent on authorities. The “legitimized authorities” gathered on the other side of humanity – whether they themselves are malicious or are part of a malicious authority system or are simply respected authorities – are also in the clear. Not only are they completely not the type that Milgram has just defined as “man,” they also stand for the need to give orientation and structure to the average citizen in “complex societies,” whatever purposes they may pursue and for whatever reason they demand the submission of obedient citizens.

Yet Milgram also adds a general accusation to the general apology of the average citizen. However, this does not consist of a criticism of obedience – he can’t criticize anything about that – but of a complaint that the prospects for better political conditions in the world are so poor because so many people are walking around with this “deeply ingrained behavior tendency” toward obedience: Three quarters, he has found, so somehow we are all doing it! This makes “the ordinary citizen” look pretty dumb, since because of this tendency he suddenly shares responsibility for all the crimes committed by “authority systems.”

5. The experiment has nothing to do with insight into the actual reasons and purposes of state rule, which are presented here as “authority systems” that are no different in content and serve no particular purpose; it has no critique of their political measures and certainly no explanation of why subjects adopt the projects of their political rule as their own and willingly make themselves available to carry them out.

But if you follow Milgram, you know that you don’t have to wonder why so much of what is going on in the world in terms of high-level politics is happening the way it does: somehow understandable, where people with their tendency to obey allows all the evil authorities to use them for their own ends. And the moral for the student? On the one hand, he can attribute fascism to a pretty screwed-up human nature. People are just like that is the defeatist credo, which does not approve of fascism, but accepts that good citizens can’t do anything to change their circumstances – and certainly not by themselves.

On the other hand, he should ask himself what it means for him if he also has this tendency to obey? Should he accuse himself of being a potential fascist? Should he give himself a general absolution? Or should he try to activate a disobedient tendency within himself? But how can he do this if he doesn’t know whether his disobedience to one authority will only lead to obedience to another? When he can’t know whether his own leadership role in school or on the sports team isn’t already showing something like the manipulation of his classmates? Questions upon questions! It’s a good thing that none of these theoretical tribulations are really taken seriously by anyone; that no one – including Milgram – even dreams of translating the image of man into practical consequences. It is and remains just an image of man that psychology has created here. It does not explain fascism, but supplements the common interpretations of fascism with a different perspective that transforms a political system into a question of human nature. This perspective calls for an awareness of the problem that leads away from the political issue and toward the abysses of the all-too-human. Aware of the evilness of fascism, people should not refuse all obedience, but should be careful that no one manipulates them against their will. In this way, a completely meaningless ideal of individual autonomy is propagated; its translation into maxims for action is familiar to everyone: beware of “right-wing and left-wing deceivers,” beware of “subliminal seductions” in advertising, beware of “sects,” beware of “hedonism,” etc. The person who comes close to this ideal of autonomy is someone who recognizes and sees through all the seducers who are presented to him as such today and who, in the exhilaration of his own un-seducability, lets himself make sense of all the standards by which “seducers” are identified today.

All quotes from: Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View, Harper & Row, New York, 1974.