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If you think you know all about Milgram’s famous obedience experiments the chances are that a new film from ShortCutsTV, Beyond Milgram featuring Professors Alex Haslam and Steve Reicher, will get you thinking again.
The conventional view of Milgram’s shock machine experiments is that they demonstrated that quite ordinary, decent people are capable of inflicting serious harm on others just by doing as they’re told by authority figures. The results, as the film illustrates, were literally shocking. In the famous baseline condition – the one everyone sees with unhappy volunteer ‘teachers’ being told by a white coated experimenter to ‘please continue’ dishing out electric shocks to a complaining ‘learner’ behind a screen – an incredible 60% of participants continued increasing voltage right through to the maximum 450 volts.
So it’s hardly surprising that when Haslam and Reicher asked samples of psychology students what Milgram’s experiments showed, 90% of them replied that ‘people will obey instructions from people in authority, even if it means harming others’.
Haslam and Reicher don’t question the validity of Milgram’s findings, nor do they try to explain them away as many have done, but they question his explanation. The baseline condition, they argue, tells only part of the story. If you look at the many much less familiar variants Milgram used, involving in all almost a thousand participants, you find as much disobedience as obedience and, ironically, when experimenters actually issued the command: ‘You have no other choice, you must go on,’ all participants refused to continue.
‘Whatever else these studies are about, and whatever else they show,’ says Reicher, ‘they don’t show that people automatically obey orders.’
Reicher argues that Milgram’s explanation, that people go into a passive ‘agentic state‘ where they simply obey orders, just doesn’t fit his own findings. If you listen carefully to the experiments (shown in the film with illustrative clips of the original black and white footage) you see that participants are not passively listening to one voice. Rather they’re actively listening to two voices – the experimenter telling them to continue and the ‘learner’ pleading with them to stop. So the key question here is, why did participants sometimes obey the voice telling them to continue and sometimes refuse?
For Haslam and Reicher, the answer to this question is found in social identity. The baseline condition with its incredible 60% compliance, did everything to encourage participants’ identification with the project. It was done at the prestigious Yale University, the white coated experimenter was authoritative and also took time to explain to each participant just how important this scientific experiment was for helping to improve learning.
However, when Milgram switched the location of the experiments to seedy downtown Bridgeport, compliance fell below 50%. When the experimenters were indifferent, offhand, or simply phoned in commands, compliance fell to just above 20%, and when there were two experimenters who argued with each other and issued contradictory orders it fell to zero.
‘The crucial variable here is identification,’ says Haslam. People will only obey orders to harm others when they identify with those orders and believe the good outweighs the harm.
In Milgram’s experiments, participants obeyed when they believed the good of the scientific cause outweighs the harm being done. And when participants were debriefed and told the real purpose of the experiments, most were still glad they participated and very few had any regrets about their involvement in spite of the deception involved.
So, as the film shows, Milgram’s experiments are actually telling us a very different story from the one that has been told to generations of psychology students. People obey orders to harm others not because they go into an agentic state that blinds them to the consequences of their actions, but rather because they believe in and identify with what they are doing. As this has massive social implications.
From the point of view of social identity theory, those who organised the mass destruction of populations, planted bombs in busy city centres, tortured suspected terrorists held without trial, or gave electric shocks in a Yale laboratory more than half a century ago all shared one thing in common. They identified with what they were doing. In spite of the harm caused to others, they believed that what they were doing was right. And that’s the really frightening thing about Milgram’s experiments.
Beyond Milgram: Obedience and Identity is produced by ShortCutsTV, available at:
Dr Steve Taylor left full-time teaching in 2007 to work in educational media and has written and appeared on TV and radio.