On Science

New Insight on a Famous Study

Participants in obedience experiments were not as passive as originally assumed

By Josie Glausiusz | October 1, 2014
Box 44 (Yale University)
Box 44 (Yale University)


Hannah Arendt in her controversial 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil famously argued that Adolf Eichmann—the Nazi mastermind of mass deportations and extermination of Jews—was a thoughtless bureaucrat obediently following orders; a man who was “quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous.” Bettina Stangneth, by contrast, in her recent book Eichmann Before Jerusalem, offers abundant evidence from Eichmann’s post-World War II exile in Argentina that the man was proud of his “creative” work, believing that extermination of the Jews “would have fulfilled our duty to our blood and our people and to the freedom of the peoples.”

Now an analysis of Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram’s widely known 1963 “obedience” experiments—inspired in part by the 1961 Eichmann atrocities trial in Jerusalem—refutes assumptions made about the participants in Milgram’s experiments: Rather than mindlessly following brutal orders to inflict pain on others, many were often proud and felt privileged to have contributed to his scientific research. They were not passive conformists blindly following malevolent orders, but rather “engaged followers” who identified with the noble goals of Milgram’s research.

In his study, Milgram asked volunteers (“teachers”) to administer electric shocks of increasing strength to “learners” in an experiment that he purposely described falsely to the volunteers as a study of the effect of punishment on memory. The shocks were fake, and the “learners” (Milgram’s collaborators)—simulated their screams of pain. Yet two-thirds of the participants continued administering shocks up to the highest “level” of 450 volts (danger: severe shock).

Alex Haslam, a professor of psychology at the University of Queensland in Australia, and his colleagues Stephen D. Reicher, Kathryn Millard, and Rachel McDonald, examined the contents of “Box 44” that Millard had discovered at the Milgram archive at Yale. The box contained cards with transcribed responses to a questionnaire that Milgram had mailed to 800 participants at the conclusion of his study, along with a report “explaining the nature of the deception in his studies and why it was necessary.” “As we looked more closely, we had an amazing collective eureka moment—of the form that you get only very rarely in science,” Haslam wrote to me via email.

The subjects’ responses to the questionnaire explain why. Forty-four percent of respondents were “very glad” to have participated in the study. Sixty-four percent indicated that, once the experiment was over, it had not bothered them at all. One volunteer wrote, “I am very delighted to be apart of this project. … I sure hope my efforts, and cooperation have been somewhat useful.” Another replied, “I did not like the idea of giving the shocks, but had complete confidence in the instructor and the nature of the experiment.” While the experiment had prompted depressing thoughts and nightmares in some, others expressed satisfaction that they had been “of some small help,” and a firm belief in “experiments that will help to understand people.”

Haslam and colleagues’ statistical analysis of the responses revealed that participants were “highly engaged” in the science, seeing it as a social good to which they were pleased to contribute. Milgram himself had convinced them of this when he wrote to them, at the conclusion of his study, that “the experiments you took part in represent the first efforts to understand [obedience] in an objective, scientific manner.” Their investigation, the researchers say, “supports the view that people are able to inflict harm on others not because they are unaware that they are doing wrong, but rather because—as engaged followers—they know full well what they are doing and believe it to be right.

Reicher tellingly wrote to me, “As long as they couldn’t understand the scientific benefit of the study, they were confused, ambivalent, even troubled. But once Milgram managed to convince them that they were engaged in a noble cause, they were content. It does show us what a powerful tool science can be socially as well as technologically and also the potential for harm to be done in its name.”

Likewise, as the researchers wrote in an earlier essay, “What was truly frightening about Eichmann was not that he was unaware of what he was doing, but rather that he knew what he was doing and believed it to be right. Indeed, his one regret, expressed prior to his trial, was that he had not killed more Jews.”

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