Who’s Fooling Who?

Rod Dreher refers to the famous Milgram experiment in which subjects were led into a mock experimental laboratory and told to press a button that supposedly delivered increasingly severe electrical shocks to other “subjects” (who were actually other researchers) at the instruction of the scientists running the experiment. It was all a set-up: no real shocks were delivered, but the subjects believed that they were delivering up to lethal voltages to other humans. Milgram was shocked (ha ha) to discover that a majority of subjects were willing to deliver all the shocks.

His interpretation of the experimental results was that Americans would have willingly participated as employees in Nazi death camps. Rod cites Ron Bailey as saying that our institutions deserve the credit for preventing Nazism or it equivalent form reaching our shores; Rod makes the point that Anglo-Protestant culture has something to do with it as well. Both are correct, in my view.

But what’s always struck me as ironic about the typical interpretations of the Milgram experiment is that the subjects did not actually deliver painful shocks. Now, you will say, yes, but they thought that they did, which indicates that they would be willing to do so. But I’m not so sure about that.

After all, they were making a (likely unarticulated) judgment about whether an action was “right” in the context of what presumably seemed like legitimately professional scientists at a major research university in the middle of a law-bound, peaceful republic. Operating in the way that most decision-making under pressure works, which is not necessarily linear processing of logical statements, they likely thought something that could be crudely represented as “Well, they wouldn’t be allowed to do something that was really heinous, and would destroy their careers if they did. I don’t understand exactly what’s going on, but all my assumptions about how the world works would be violated if Yale University could really run a torture chamber operated by random people picked off the street. It would just be too crazy.” This muddled-headed, superficial thinking turns out to have been a correct judgment.

If you took these exact same people, formed by the institutions and culture of contemporary America, and had them live in an America that within a few years had been taken over by a dictatorial regime premised on ethnically cleansing a good fraction of the population, and then had them go into a chamber with a plaque saying “work makes you free” populated by scary guys in military uniforms, they might or might not go along with electro-shocking people strapped to chairs; but if they did, it would most likely be out of a fear for personal safety.