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Thursday, January 20, 2005

Milgram’s Obedience Experiment*

"Stanley Milgram…conducted a number of studies on the Obedience to Authority…He was highly interested in the reasons why the average person would submit to obedience through an authority figure although he/she knew that he/she was harming an innocent third party. This research was prompted by the events of the Holocaust and later the Nuremberg Trials in which Eichmann, an infamous nazi, supported his actions of genocide as simply following orders."

In Milgram’s experiment, two people met with
"an instructor who appeared to be conducting the experiment. This instructor superficially appeared as an authority figure…displaying the necessary credentials as a professor such as a white lab coat and clipboard. The two ‘subjects’ were then taken to a room where one was strapped in a chair to prevent movement and an electrode was placed on their arm. The other individual who was called the ‘teacher’ was taken to an adjoining room where he/she was instructed to read a list of two word pairs. He/She would then ask the ‘learner’ to read them back. If the ‘learner’ got the answer correct, they would then move on to the next set of words…However, if the answer was wrong the ‘teacher’ was…required to administer shock to the ‘learner’. These shocks started at 15 volts and increased in 15 volt increments to 450 volts for each incorrect response…The ‘teacher’ was never coerced into doing so, they were simply told by the instructor that the experiment required them to continue. This in fact is what made this study so intriguing; the ‘teacher’ could have discontinued the experiment at any time but…the majority continued to shock. The ‘teacher’ was fully under the assumption that he/she was administering discipline to the ‘learner’ however, they never really did [so]. The ‘learner’ was actually a confederate, a student or actor, who was never actually harmed.”
The phony shock switches used by the ‘teacher’ were marked “slight shock,” “moderate shock,” “strong shock,” “very strong shock,” “intense shock,” “extreme intensity shock,” “danger: severe shock.”

I watched a film of this very experiment in psych. class in college. It was harrowing to watch the “teachers” continue administering what they thought were horrific, convulsion-causing shocks to another living being, even past the point where their screams were piercing and they pounded on the wall to make it stop. Shocks continued to be administered even after question-answering and even screaming ceased, implying that the subject had been rendered unconscious from the torturing pain.
“The theory that only the most severe monsters on the sadistic fringe of society would submit to [inflicting] such cruelty is disclaimed...'Two-thirds of the participants fell into the category of ‘obedient’ subjects...[and] represented ordinary people drawn from the working, managerial, and professional classes.’ (Obedience to Authority)...65% of all of the ‘teachers’ punished the ‘learners’ to [what they thought was] the maximum 450 volts.

“According to Milgram, every human has the dual capacity to function as an individual exercising his or her own moral judgement and the aptness to make their own moral decisions based on their personal character. The question is therefore raised: What becomes of the average person who is obedient to authority when it overrides their own moral judgement?”

How much of our decisions to abort stem from being subjected to outside influences we perceived, even subconsciously, as authorities? We object to the insinuation, but we all fall sometimes to the pressures to conform to a group, the norm, society, the culture, the “authorities.” Obedience to or placating authority, “taking the easy way out”--it’s wrapped up and sugared over—sometimes by others, sometimes by ourselves—to look like the virtues of “loyalty, discipline, and self-sacrifice:”

LOYALTY: “My mother said I’ll ruin this family if I have this baby.”
DISCIPLINE: “My doctor says it’s unsafe for me to have this baby now, what with my/the baby’s condition. I’m just doing what the doctor ordered. He’s the doctor.” OR
“Everyone says I shouldn’t have to carry this ‘spawn of rape.’”
SELF-SACRIFICE: “I really want this baby, but my husband doesn’t want one yet, so I’ll go along.”

Most if not all of us probably would say we didn’t let these things make our decision for us, that we’re smarter or more educated than that. And we may be right. But a recurring theme in so many women’s stories is that of pressure or outright coercion--"to do the right thing"--from parents, boyfriends, husbands, girlfriends, grandparents, doctors and nurses, student health centers, so-called feminist groups, classmates, teachers, co-workers, bosses, politicians, entertainment and last but not least, the media.

Even if not direct impacts, we see them almost everywhere we look:
  • the “nurses and interns for choice” in a river of blue scrubs at the April 25, 2004 March for Choice,
  • which in turn was co-sponsored by most of the teachers in mandatory-membership National Education Association union.
  • Girl Scouts of America supporting and advocating abortion-provider Planned Parenthood.
  • Pamphlets from Yale University (where Milgram taught) Student Health center, listing abortion and birth control predominantly under the heading “women’s health issues,” while adoption is barely mentioned and campus prenatal care not at all.
  • College campus women's groups trying to get postabortive women's talks disallowed or otherwise unsupported or censored.
  • Peaceful pro-life displays of crosses vandalized and replaced by coathangers.
  • Every newspaper and TV news program except the Washington Times, Fox News, and Macneil-Lehrer Hour.
  • Gallup’s November 23, 2003 Survey showed that 32% of teens thought all abortions should be illegal; only half that number (17%) of adults agreed. 47% of teens thought it only should be legal under certain circumstances, while more adults (55%) agreed. Less than one in five (19%) teens said abortion should always be legal, while more (26%) adults in the US agreed.
Is this so far-fetched? Compare Milgram’s basic experiment to the following then:

...from the article in Em’s post, “How lying marketers sold Roe v Wade to America:”
“As Dr. Brewer explained, medical students go against their conscience by learning to perform abortions because their residency chief insists they must if they ever want to become doctors. The residency chief is an authority, and authorities exert an automatic hypnotic effect on suggestible people. (Indeed, people’s vulnerability to an authority’s ‘suggestion’ is a core principle of hypnosis.) And what makes the ‘subject’ here suggestible? The fact that the med student’s future career is at stake provides a strong inducement for him to give up his principles [emphasis mine] to fulfill the requirements for success in his chosen field.”
If educated doctors and nurses do what goes against their principles to meet the influence of authorities, then it isn’t about how educated or smart we are.

Going back to the Milgram article:
“Milgram has noted reoccurring themes (as found in Obedience to Authority):
  1. People who are doing a job as instructed by an administrative figure are following the instructions of that administrative outlook and not the outlook of a moral code.
  2. The feelings of duty and personal emotion are clearly separated.
  3. Responsibility shifts in the mind of the subordinate from himself/herself to the authority figure.
  4. There is a well defined purpose behind the actions or goals of the authority, and the subordinate is depended upon to help and meet those goals.
Milgram concluded, “The results, as seen and felt in the laboratory, are to this author disturbing. They raise the possibility that human nature, or—more specifically—the kind of character produced in American society, cannot be counted on to insulate the citizens from brutality and inhumane treatment at the direction of malevolent authority.” [emphasis mine]

So: “what becomes of the average person who is obedient to authority when it overrides their own moral judgment?”

The Holocaust. Rwanda. The Mi Lai massacre. Jonestown, Guyana, Jim Jones and Kool-Aid mass suicide. Hussein’s genocide of his own people. Abortion.

Just to name a few.

* [Copyright by Goret, Michael, Amanda Zega, Lorraine Voss, and Gillian Fawcett-Hammalian. 1998. Stanley Milgram. Accessed 20 January 2005.]

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