Don’t blame Milgram

I’m motivated to write this post because of a new book that, according to an NPR interview with its author, attacks the late Stanley Milgram for having misled us about the human propensity to obey.  He overstated his case, she claims, and also conducted unethical research.

The Milgram obedience studies of the 1960’s are probably the most famous research in the history of social psychology.  As the reader almost certainly knows, subjects were ordered to give apparently harmful – perhaps even fatal – electric shocks to an innocent victim (who was, fortunately, an unharmed research assistant).  The studies found that a surprising number of ordinary people followed orders to the hilt .

Accounts of these studies in textbooks and in popular writings usually make one of two points, and often both.  (1)  Milgram showed that anybody, or almost anybody, would obey orders to harm an innocent victim if the orders came from someone in an apparent position of authority.  (2) Milgram showed that the “power of the situation” overwhelms the “power of the person”; the experimenter’s orders were so strong that they overwhelmed personal dispositions and individual differences.  Both of these points are, indeed, dead wrong.  But their promulgation is not Milgram’s fault.

Consider each point, and what Milgram said (or didn’t say) about them.

1. Anybody, or almost anybody, would obey orders to harm an innocent victim.

Why this is wrong.  Because empirically it is wrong.  Milgram ran many variations in on his basic procedure and, to his credit, reported the data in full in his 1974 book.  (Not all social psychologists are so forthcoming.)  Across 18 experimental conditions, compliance ranged from 93% (when the participant did not have to administer shocks personally) to 0% (when two authorities gave contradictory orders, when the experimenter was the victim, and when the victim demanded to be shocked). In the two most famous conditions, when the experimenter was present and the victim could be heard but not seen, the obedience rates were 63% (at Yale) and 48% (when the setting was ostensibly “Research Associates of Bridgeport”). Across all conditions the average rate of compliance was 37.5% (Milgram 1974, Tables 2, 3, 4 and 5).  It is certainly reasonable to argue that this rate is surprising, and high enough to be troubling.  But 40% is far from everybody, or almost everybody.  Disobedience, even in the Milgram study, was a common occurrence.

Why the mistake is not Milgram’s fault.  Perhaps Milgram said some things that made people overestimate the rate of obedience he showed; I don’t know and I haven’t gone back to his original writings to check.  However, I doubt that the recent criticism that he misleadingly made people think that “anybody could be a Nazi” is fair, for a couple of reasons.  One reason is that he very clearly laid out the data from all of his experimental conditions in his definitive book, which allowed the calculations that are summarized above (and taken from Krueger & Funder, 2004, footnote 1).  Milgram hid nothing.

The second reason I don’t blame Milgram is that I had the opportunity to see him in person, just once, in about 1980.  (He was giving a talk at the Claremont Graduate School when I was a new faculty member at Harvey Mudd College.)  Milgram noted that his own famous movie about his research – a black & white classic still shown in many introductory psychology classes – begins with a subject who disobeys the experimenter. Milgram said he did that on purpose.  He feared that the message of his research would be taken to be that disobedience is impossible.  He wanted to counter that at the outset, he said, by showing just how it’s done:  Keep saying no.

It’s a reality-film classic, from before the genre even existed.  You see the balding, middle-aged white guy subject, wearing an office-worker’s shirt with rolled-up sleeves, become increasingly disturbed as the victim’s complaints escalate.  When he resists continuing to administer shocks, the experimenter says “you have no other choice, teacher, you must continue.”  It is a truly thrilling cinematic moment when the subject crosses his arms, leans back, and replies, “oh, I have a lot of choice.”

2.  Milgram’s study shows that the power of the situation overwhelms the power of the person, personality, or individual differences.

Why this is wrong (a):  First, the statement is empirically wrong because of the data summarized above.  Years ago, Lee Ross (1977) wrote about the complications in separating out “situational” from “dispositional” (or personal) causation.  He pointed out that to say “he ate it because it was chocolate-coated” sounds like a situational cause, but is precisely equivalent to saying “he ate it because he can’t resist chocolate,” which sounds like a dispositional cause.  The way out of this dilemma, Ross pointed out – in a resolution that has been widely accepted ever since – is that situational causation can be attributed only when everybody or almost everybody in a situation does the same thing.  Dispositional causation is indicated when people differ in their responses to the same situation.  In other words, if a response is made by 0% or 100% of the people in a situation (or close to these numbers), then you can fairly say the situation was the cause.  As this number gets closer to 50%, you have to attribute some causal power to personal, individual differences.  Recall again the overall obedience number across all the conditions of the Milgram studies;  37.5%.  Even in the most famous, Yale/victim-in-the-next-room condition, the obedience rate of 63% is much closer to 50 than to 100.

Why this is wrong (b):  The claim that Milgram showed the situation is more powerful than dispositions was incoherent to begin with.  His study included not one, but two situational forces: (1) the experimenter saying “continue” and (2) the victim saying “stop.”  It also included two dispositional forces: (1) an individual’s disposition to obey and (2) the individual’s disposition to be compassionate, kind, and therefore disobedient.  In the (less than 100%) of cases where the subjects obey to the hilt, four explanations are therefore conceivable (see Funder & Fast, 2010):

  1. The situational force to obey was stronger than the situational force to be compassionate.
  2. The dispositional force to obey was stronger than the dispositional force to be compassionate.
  3. The situational force to obey was stronger than the dispositional force to be compassionate.
  4. The dispositional force to obey was stronger than the situational force to be compassionate.

Explanations (1) and (2) both make sense, and in fact – as Ross would have noted – are exactly equivalent in meaning (and equally disturbing).  Explanation 4 is heresy.  It would use the Milgram study as a demonstration of how dispositions overwhelm situations!  But explanation 3 is equivalently incoherent, and it is the conventional one found in almost every social psychology textbook.

Why the mistake is not Milgram’s fault.  Milgram himself noted the interindividual variation in his subject’s responses, and said that it was important to find out their basis, though he didn’t succeed in finding it (for that, see recent research by David Gallardo-Pujol and his colleagues, reference below).  His movie also includes a graphic representation of what was listed above as explanation (1).  He described the competing demands of the experimenter and the victim as “fields of force,” noting that his experimental manipulations showed that as you got closer to the experimenter you were more likely to respond to his demands to obey, and as you got closer to the victim, you were more likely to respond to his demands to break off.  (The picture below is from the title slide, but the diagram was used later in the film to illustrate competing pressures from two situational forces).

Obedience

So don’t blame Milgram.  He was one of the most creative social psychologists in history, and his research program on obedience and other topics continues to be instructive (see Blass, 2004 for a fascinating personal history and summary of his work).

References

Gallardo-Pujol, D.; Orekhova, L.; & Benet-Martínez, V. (in preparation). Under Pressure to Obey and Conform: When the Power of the Situation is not enough. University of Barcelona

Ross, L. (1977). The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (vol. 10). New York: Academic Press.

Update 9/8/13

Some useful additional information concerning personality correlates of obedience, courtesy of Jonathan Cheek (thanks, Jon):

“Personality psychologists may appreciate the original study ELMS, A. C., & MILGRAM, S. (1966). PERSONALITY CHARACTERISTICS ASSOCIATED WITH OBEDIENCE AND DEFIANCE TOWARD AUTHORITATIVE COMMAND. Journal of Experimental Research in Personality, 1, 282-289, which is more accessibly summarized in Elms, A. C. (2009). Obedience lite. American Psychologist, 64, 32-36.”

6 thoughts on “Don’t blame Milgram

  1. Loved this — it seems like people attacking Milgram are beating a straw man. Although the ethical question of whether the value of the knowledge gained balances the discomfort experienced by the subjects is a fair one, even there it’s not really fair to judge it solely in light of today’s standards.

    I spoke to Lee briefly last week after he attended a Milgram-themed conference in Ontario and he, as always, had some really thought provoking things to say about what the really important lessons are to take from Milgram. He argues that the essence of Milgram is rationalization — Milgram made it easy for people to rationalize what they were doing, especially when they started. And once they had started, because of the escalating nature of the shocks, it became difficult to rationalize stopping. I’m putting together a post on the creeping escalation of shocks, and why gradual escalation is such an important, but easy-to-miss factor, particularly in cases that are drawn out across long periods of time, rather than contained within a single sitting, like the Milgram experiments were. Thanks for a great post.

  2. Nice post! Interesting read. Thanks for writing it. I hope you will allow me to be somewhat criticial by stating the following:

    “He argues that the essence of Milgram is rationalization — Milgram made it easy for people to rationalize what they were doing, especially when they started.”

    “…noting that his experimental manipulations showed that as you got closer to the experimenter you were more likely to respond to his demands to obey, and as you got closer to the victim, you were more likely to respond to his demands to break off”

    Has anyone tried to replicate the findings of these Milgram studies, and if so: what were the results ?

    I always think about professors teaching things like the Milgram studies, and I wonder if they themselves take the results at face value or whether they think about them critically (like in this post) or whether they may even have tried to replicate the findings.

    If not, then maybe psychologists in general rationalize that this is simply not done in psychology, and that you just have to believe what someone reported. Maybe this becomes easier to do once you started thinking like that, and then with all articles and findings you read after you started to think like that you just believe the results and conclusions without a critical stance towards them, or without ever replicating them. Maybe this non-critical stance is a habit you get into once you enter the world of tenure and psychological meetings: the closer you are to fellow-psychologists, the less likely you are to disobey rules and habits that are perceived as “normal” within the field. Eventually, this could results in a situation where nearly all research findings are probably wrong, where “top tier” journals are the ones with the least qualitatively rigorous papers, where “getting closer to the truth” is being replaced by “getting ‘new’ and ‘surprising’ results’, where big publishers earn lots of money while scientists do all the work for free for them, where undisclosed flexibility of data analysis allow for almost anything to be reported as significant, and where grown men and women throw a temper tantrum when someone replicates their findings.

    Maybe (social) psychology should look at itself, and the Milgram experiments, one more time to see what they could possibly learn from it…..

  3. Awesome! The blog post that is…

    First, in response to the post above, yes lots of people have replicated the original study – see Blass’ articles or his book (‘The Man Who Shocked The World’) for a review. Yes, other people have found obedience in their replications. In fact, a fake French game show a few years ago produced an 80% obedience rate, reportedly anyway. No, I haven’t tried personally…

    That said, the devil is in the detail, and other replications have shown quite a bit of variation in results. But the studies (and summaries of them) are out there. It is my pleasure to teach the Obedience lectures to my first-years and it’s our responsibility to read the primary sources.

    I also wanted to add that Elms and Milgram published a paper that (if I recall it correctly) showed that participants scoring higher on the F-Scale were more likely to be obedient – an interaction, then, between ‘personality’ and situation. It is ‘us’ (the people who have written the textbooks that present the orthodoxy of social psychology) who are responsible for the oversimplification that has lead readers to think that anyone could be a nazi, and that it’s the situation that over-rules everything else. For an example, look at Phil Zimbardo’s Discovering Psychology series – sound bites don’t make for nuanced understandings.

    • – First, in response to the post above, yes lots of people have replicated the original study – see Blass’ articles or his book (‘The Man Who Shocked The World’) for a review.

      Thank you for this information, I’ll go and find it and read about it some more !

      -It is my pleasure to teach the Obedience lectures to my first-years and it’s our responsibility to read the primary sources.

      Is it also responsible for psychologists in general to refrain from overstating things when teaching, especially when findings are based on little to no replications, and including taking things like the file-drawer problem into account?

      Could a new introduction teaching course be written, in which 3 things would be given priority: 1] basically we don’t know what is or is not remotely correct and truthful due to several issues in the last few decades (which would be explored in detail). We can look at some nice findings, but we simply don’t know how many people have tried and failed to get similar results. Basically, we don’t know what are really rigorous studies and robust findings, 2] It can be seen as good scientific practice to state things carefully, and to keep an inquisitive mind about matters, 3] Let’s forget about 80% of the things we normally talk about in our lectures and take this saved time to talk about point 1] & 2] mentioned above, and take a few findings and investigate things for ourselves then! Maybe we can even write a paper about it, or post our results on a site like psychfiledrawer, so we would actually be contributing to science as well at the same time!

      -It is ‘us’ (the people who have written the textbooks that present the orthodoxy of social psychology) who are responsible for the oversimplification that has lead readers to think that…

      Is it also ‘us’ who have written the papers/ articles that present the orthodoxy of social psychology who are responsible for the oversimplicfication that has lead readers to think that…?

      Thanks again for the information about the replication of the Milgram studies !

  4. Great post. I wrote this a while back about Milgram:

    “Most of the subjects were acutely distressed during the procedure – hardly surprising given the screams and protests of their “victim”. Some subjects shook with tension; one started laughing whenever they had to give a shock. Yet most of them continued to give the shocks despite being tangibly upset about it… This inner conflict comes across vividly in Milgram’s writing, and it led to some fascinating behaviour. In Experiment 7, in which the “experimenter” giving orders left the room and spoke to the subjects by telephone, many subjects continued to give shocks but gave much milder shocks than they were supposed to… Most people also seemed to try to keep the shocks as short as possible, and tried to minimize the number of punishments by helping the victim to give the right answers.”

    This “inner tension” is remarked on time and again in Milgram’s book, but it doesn’t seem to have made it into the popular consciousness (or such is my impression). Rather, the popular view seems to be that Milgram was able to make people want to shock other people, which is not what happened at all (except in a few cases).

    It would have been even more disturbing had Milgram’s subjects ‘willingly’ shocked people. They didn’t but I think the idea that this happened might be in the back of a lot of people’s minds, accounting for the enduring popularity of the meme, but also misleading many.

  5. Pingback: El juego de la muerte, o desmontando a Milgram ← aiidi

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