Milgram and the Holocaust

What encourage Milgram to perform his experiments?

The Holocaust (Photo Credit: Tom Parry)

Milgram’s claim in his original paper that the experiments shed light on the Holocaust was also put into doubt. Milgram suggests, “the generalization of his findings is not specific to the Holocaust but addresses general principles of obedience to authority” (Lunt, 2009, p. 47). Milgram never claimed he was trying to capture the conditions of the Holocaust in a laboratory setting. Instead, he was trying to isolate factors that affected obedience in the laboratory. Milgram states that the idea of the Holocaust was simply a “background metaphor; in other words an extreme case in which the central importance of obedience to social life is illustrated but that his experiment is aimed at obedience as a general phenomenon” (Lunt, 2009, p. 47-48).

Milgram started his experiments in 1961, shortly after the trial of the World War II criminal Adolf Eichmann had begun. Eichmann’s defense was that he was simply following instructions when he ordered the death of millions of Jews, which aroused Milgram’s interest. In his 1974 book, Obedience to Authority, he posed the question, “Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders?” (Cherry, 2008).

Justifications for Milgram: Jerry Burger

Milgram experiment 2.0

Jerry Burger (Photo Credit: Gina Perry)

Jerry Burger conducted a similar experiment based off of Milgram’s obedience research. In 2006, Burger was able to test 70 men and women by modifying aspects of the Milgram situation. Burger used a “facsimile of the original shock machine, an innocent male victim who cried out in pain and demanded to be released, and an experimenter who delivered well-rehearsed prods if participants balked” (Forsyth, 2010, p. 248). Burger also would not allow participants to administer great than 150-volts. 82.5 percent of men continued past 150-volts in the 1960s, while 70 percent of men and women went to 150-volts in 2006 (Forsyth, 2010, p. 248). While there was a decline, it was not a significant one.

Burger published his findings in the American Psychologist. Burger made the slight change in deference (subjects stopped when participant believed he administered 150-volt shock) to meet ethical standards since developed and implemented since 1963. In order to make his experiment more real, he screened out people who were familiar with Milgram’s experiments.

Many people expected Burger’s experiment to have a more drastic change (greater disobedience) in contrast to Milgram’s 1960s experiments. Many people thought there would be a drastic change because much has changed since 1963. For instance, civil rights and antiwar movements taught Americans to question authority (Cohen, 2008). However, Burger was not surprised by the lack of difference between the two experiment’s results. Burger believes that the mindset of the individual participant (including cultural influences) is less important than the “situational features” that Milgram built into his experiment (Cohen, 2008). The question then arises: How do we prevent more Holocausts and genocides and other cruelty if this is how most people behave (obey authority)? Burger says: “teaching people about experiments so they will know to be on guard against these tendencies, in themselves and others” is how we can prevent such things (Cohen, 2008).

 

Justifications for Milgram: Roger Brown

Milgram’s biggest advocate?

In response to the negative reactions of Milgram’s experiments, Roger Brown has many positive reactions. Brown is one of Milgram’s most ardent advocates within social psychology. Brown goes as far as to regard the obedience experiments as “amongst the greatest ever conducted in social psychology” (Lunt, 2009, p. 54). In Brown’s book, Social Psychology: the second edition, he discusses two issues: the potential for collective action in response to authority and an interpretation of Milgram’s findings using social impact theory. In Brown’s book, he discusses the Gamson study, using that as his interpretation to Milgram’s experiments. With Brown’s interpretation that

The presence of others strengthened the resolve of individuals to disobey authority. A critical difference between the Milgram experiments and the Gamson study is the presence of the authority figure (Lunt, 2009, p. 56).

Brown proposes that these two studies (the Gamson study and Milgram’s experiments) give us an insight into human behaviors under different social conditions, which is extremely different from Milgram’s conception of scientific social psychology. “Social psychology is the study of the interaction between individuals in groups or between individuals and social institutions and therefore falls between the epistemological assumptions of psychology and sociology” (Lunt, 2009, p. 57). Brown does not see social psychology as such a distinct scientific discipline, like Milgram, but rather explicitly draws on social and political theory when framing his research questions.

Milgram’s Response: Questionnaire

Questions from Milgram’s Questionnaire:

 

Table 7.1 Now That I Have Read the Report, and All Things Considered,…

  1. I am very glad to have been in the experiment.

Defiant Subjects, 40.0%, 146 participants

Obedient Subjects, 47.8%, 139 participants

Total, 43.5%, 285 participants

  1. I am glad to have been in the experiment.

Defiant Subjects, 43.8%, 160 participants

Obedient Subjects, 35.7%, 104 participants

Total, 40.2, 264 participants

  1. I am neither sorry nor glad to have been in the experiment.

Defiant Subjects, 15.3%, 56 participants

Obedient Subjects, 14.8%, 43 participants

Total, 15.1%, 99 participants

  1. I am sorry to have been in the experiment.

Defiant Subjects, 0.8%, 3 participants

Obedient Subjects, 0.7%, 2 participants

Total, 0.8%, 5 participants

  1. I am very sorry to have been in the experiment.

Defiant Subjects, 0

Obedient Subjects, 1.0%, 3 participants

Total, 0.5%, 3 participants

 

Table 7.2 During the Experiment,…

  1. I was extremely upset.

Defiant Subjects, 8.7%, 32 participants

Obedient Subjects, 12.0%, 35 participants

Total, 10.2%, 67 participants

  1. I was somewhat nervous.

Defiant Subjects, 48.8%, 179 participants

Obedient Subjects, 51.6%, 150 participants

Total, 50.0%, 329 participants

  1. I was relatively calm.

Defiant Subjects, 38.2%, 140 participants

Obedient Subjects, 30.2%, 88 participants

Total, 34.7%, 228 participants

  1. I was completely calm.

Defiant Subjects, 4.4%, 16 participants

Obedient Subjects, 6.2%, 18 participants

Total, 5.2%, 34 participants

 

Table 7.3 Since the Time I Was in the Experiment,…

  1. I have been bothered by it quite a bit.

Defiant Subjects, 7.7%, 28 participants

Obedient Subjects, 6.2%, 18 participants

Total, 7.0%, 46 participants

  1. It has bothered me a little.

Defiant Subjects, 29.6%, 107 participants

Obedient Subjects, 28.9%, 84 participants

Total, 29.2%, 191 participants

  1. It has not bothered me at all.

Defiant Subjects, 62.7%, 227 participants

Obedient Subjects, 65.0%, 189 participants

Total, 63.6%, 416 participants

 

(Blass, 2004, p. 125-127)

Milgram’s Response: Diana Baumrind

Milgram writes back to Baumrind’s concerns

In 1964 Milgram used the American Psychologist to respond to Baumrind’s concerns about the unethical experiment, his ambition, and his breach of trust. Milgram was in agreement that the experiment upset and distressed some of the participants, but still defended his experiment as ethical. Milgram made it clear in his writing that it was not his intentions to induce stress in his experiments. To verify his intentions, he presented the results of some follow-up procedures. Milgram sent each of his participants a report about the experimental procedure. Appended to the report was a questionnaire asking participants to reflect on their experience. Milgram ended up with 92 percent of subjects returning the questionnaires; with almost 84 percent saying they were glad to have participated and only 1.3 percent said they were sorry they had participated (Blass, 2004, p. 125-127).

Milgram’s Response: Participants

Milgram says participants did not know about hoax

In regards to the criticisms of whether or not participants knew about the study being a hoax Milgram responded stating a research team interviewed all participants and they found that fewer than 20 percent challenged the reality of the situation (the experiment) (Forsyth, 2010, p. 248). In response to many individuals questioning whether or not participants knew that the shocks were not real, Milgram said,

Many subjects showed signs of nervousness in the experimental situation, and especially upon administering the more powerful shocks. In a large number of cases the degree of tension reached extremes that are rarely seen in socio-psychological laboratory studies. Subjects were observed to sweat, tremble, stutter, bite their lips, groan, and dig their fingernails into their flesh (Milgram, 1974, p. 375).

In Thomas Blass, Ph.D.’s book The Man Who Shocked the World, a book about Milgram’s obedience experiments, Blass says “The distress of the participants was so great that the publication of the study sparked a controversy over the ethics of socio-psychological research” (Blass, 2004).

 

Setup for experiment (Photo Credit: Saul McLeod)

Criticisms: Participants

Two participants of the experiments speak out about experience

William Menold participated in Milgram’s study in 1961 after he had just been discharged from a Regimental Combat Team in the U.S. Army. Menold said, “It was hell in there,” describing Milgram’s experiment. “A fleeing thought occasionally crossed his mind about whether the ‘thing was real or no… but it was so well done… I bought the whole thing.’” Menold said when asked if he thought the experiment was real. “He ended up fully obedient: ‘I went the whole nine yards.’ During the experiment, he recalls ‘hysterically laughing, but it was not funning laughter… it was so bizarre. And I mean, I completely lost it, my reasoning power.’ He described himself as an ‘emotional wreck’ and a ‘basket case’ (Blass, 2004, p. 115-116).

Herbert Winer, another former subject spoke to a group at Yale about his experience in the experiment. He stated, “To my dismay, [the learner] began to stumble very early in the game… it was quite clear that before we got very far, the level of shock was going to be increasing… this was the end of the fun part. It is very difficult to describe… the way my feelings changed, and the conflict and tension arose.” Winer discussed when the learner began to complain about “his heart condition” and how the experimenter prodded him to continue. Winer said, “And so I did, for a couple of times, and finally my own heart condition went into an extremely tense and conflicted state… I turned to the chap in the gray coat and said, ‘I’m sorry but I can’t go on any further with this…’” (Blass, 2004, p. 116).

Criticisms: Gina Perry

Gina Perry’s responses to Milgram’s experiment

Gina Perry, an Australian psychologist, once regarded Milgram as a “misunderstood genius who’d been penalized in some ways for revealing something troubling and profound about human nature.” But by the end of her research on Milgram’s experiments she said, “By the end of my research I actually had quite a very different view of the man and the research” (NPR, 2013).

Perry interviewed a few study participants decades after the exam, one un-named participant was quoted telling her “The thought of quitting never… occurred to me” (NPR, 2013).

Two things Perry addresses are what she called the “powerful parable” and the concern that 65 percent is the only significant measurement addressed. “Perry believes that despite all its ethical issues and the problem of never truly being able to replicate Milgram’s procedures, the study has taken on the role of what she calls a ‘powerful parable’” (Cherry, 2008). Meaning, that Milgram’s work inspired other researchers to explore what makes people follow orders and what leads them to question authority. While the parable is not necessarily a criticism, she does criticize the statistics that are greatly publicized. Milgram had a total of 18 experiments, each having a different rating for obedience and disobedience. However, 65 percent obedience is always mentioned when discussing Milgram’s experiments. What Perry criticizes about this is that this 65 percent only applies to the first, baseline, study, not the other 17 studies.

Gina Perry (Photo Credit: ABC)

Criticisms: Diana Baumrind

Diana Baumrind (Photo Credit: The Baumrind Fallacy)

Diana Baumrind’s responses to the experiments

Milgram observed that participants of the experiment were visibly hesitant, upset, angry and frightened. Diana Baumrind wrote a paper outlining her reaction to Milgram’s experiment in 1964. Baumrind argued intensively that Milgram’s ambition as a scientist and the need to take care of his participants were at a great tension. Baumrind was also concerned “that the design of Milgram’s experiment reflected his desire to see how social influence would work in an experimental context in which the participants would feel that something was at stake (Lunt, 2009, p. 43).

Another concern Baumrind opened was that of a breach of trust. Baumrind suggests,

That there are a special set of ethical concerns in play because the natural attitude of participants as volunteers is that they are there to help the experimenter to contribute to scientific knowledge; they approach the experiment in a passive and respectful way, which makes them particularly susceptible to Milgram’s manipulations (Lunt, 2009, p. 43-44).

Baumrind believed that the subjects of Milgram’s experiments were likely left with permanent negative after-effects.

Criticisms: Ethics

Were Milgram’s experiments unethical?

One of the most important controversies in regards to his research had to deal “with the ethics of immersing participants in a highly stressful situation without their prior consent and deceiving them into believing that they had hurt, and possibly harmed, an innocent human being” (Blass, 1998, p. 50-51). Half a century later, the rage over the controversy of ethics and meaning of Milgram’s experiments continues. For example, there was a 3-day academic bun fight at Nipissing University in Canada called the 2013 Obedience to Authority Conference to discuss issues that still arise in regards to the experiments (Chin, 2013).

Participation in the Stanley Milgram Experiments (Photo Credit: Derek Gregory)

An ethical issue that received attention was the deception Milgram lead on. Subjects thought they were participating in an experiment on learning and memory, where Milgram was studying the effects of punishment on learning. Not until the (what Milgram called) debriefings did participants know they had not actually hurt anyone. However, many critics believe debriefing was not enough because it did not prevent any subsequent psychological damage that could have affected participants. The realization that they could administer such lethal levels of shock to another human being could have long-term negative psychological effects on the subjects (Controversy in Ethics of Obedience Research). Milgram’s experiment really ignited a debate particularly in social sciences about what was acceptable to put human subjects through (NPR, 2013).