Remote forms of oppression in the light of Stanley Milgram’s experiments
by Elias Davidsson
Stanley Milgram: Some Conditions of Obedience and Disobedience to Authority: in Richard Flacks (ed.): Conformity, Resistance and Self-Determination: The Individual and Authority, Boston (1973), pp. 25-38
Stanley Milgram conducted a study whose focus concerned the amount of electric shock a subject is willing to administer to another person when ordered by an experimenter to give the “victim” increasingly more severe punishment. The purpose of the study was, inter alia, to determine under what conditions the subjects would accept to comply with the orders to administer pain and when they would refuse to do so. A crucial component of the experiement was that the person who administered the electric shock did not know that the victims only pretended to feel pain. They were thus made to face a moral dilemma. to obey the orders given or to follow their conscience.
Among the observations of the first part of the study the author notes:
This series consisted of four experiment conditions. In each condition the victim was brought “psychologically” closer to the subject giving him schocks. In the first condition (Remote feedback) the victim was placed in another room and could not be heard or seen by the subject, except that, at 300 volts, he pounded on the wall in protest. After 315 volts he no longer answered or was heard from. The second condition (Voice Feedback) was identical to the first except that voice protests were introduced…The third experimental condition (Proximity) was similar to the second, except that the victim was now placed in the same room as the subject, and one and a half feet from him…The fourth, and final, condition of these series (Touch-Proximity) was identical to the third, with this exception: The victim received a shock only when his hand rested on a shockplate. At the 150-volt level the victim again demanded to be let free and, in this condition, refused to place his hand on the shockplate. The experimenter ordered the naive subject to force the victim’s hand onto the plate. Thus obedience in this condition required that the subject have physical contact with the victim in order to give him punishment beyond the 150-volt level…
The data revealed that obedience was significantly reduced as the victim was rendered more immediate to the subject. (p. 28)
In the Proximity condition the subject is in an improved position to observe the victim, the reverse is also true. The actions of the subject now come under proximal scrutiny by the victim. Possibly, it is easier to harm a person when he is unable to observe our actions than when he can see what we are doing. His surveillance of the action directed against him may give rise to shame, or guilt, which may then serve to curtail the action. Many expressions of language refer to the discomfort or inhibitions that arise in face-to-face confrontation… p. 29
Moreover, when the experimenter was absent, subjects displayed an interesting form of behaviour that had not occurred under his surveillance. Though continuing with the experiment, several subjects administred lower shocks than were required and never informed the experimenter of their deviation from the correct procedure. (p. 31)
Experiments in this series show that the physical presence of an authority is an important force contributing to the subject’s obedience or defiance.
One general finding that merits attention is the high level of obedience manifested in the experimental situation. Subjects often expressed deep disapproval of shocking a man in the face of his objections, and others denounced it as senseless and stupid. Yet many subjects complied even while they protested. The proportion of obedient subjects greatly exceeded the expectations of the experimenter and his colleagues. At the outset, we had conjenctured that subjects would not, in general, go above the level of “Strong Shock”. In practice, many subjects were willing to administer the most extreme shocks available when commended by the experimenter…
..In Figure 3, we compare the predictions of forty psychiatrists at a leading medical school with the actual performance of subjects in the experiment. The psychiatrists predicted that most subjects would not go beyond the tenth shock level (150 volts…). They further predicted that by the twentieth shock level (300 volts…) 3,73 per cent of the subjecfs would still be obedient; and that only a little over one-tenth of one percent of the subjects would administer the highest shock on the board. But, as the graph indicates, the obtained behaviour was very different. Sixty-two per cent of the subjects obeyed the experimenter’s commands fully. Between expectation and occurrence there is a whopping discrepancy.(p. 35)
In explaining this discrepancy, the author writes:
Many people, not knowing much about the experiment, claim that subjects who go to the end of the board are sadistic. Nothing could be more foolish as an overall characterization of these persons…The individual, upon entering the laboratory, becomes integrated into a situation that carries its own momentum. The subject’s problem then is how to become disengaged from a situation which is moving in an altogether ugly direction. The fact that disengagement is so difficult testifies to the potency of the forces that keep the subject at the control board. (p. 36)
In a postscript the author writes:
With numbing regularity good people were seen to knuckle under to the demands of authority and to perform actions that were callous and severe. Men who are in everyday life responsible and decent were seduced by the trappings of authority, by the control of their perceptions, and by the uncritical acceptance of the experimenter’s definition of the situation, into performing harsh acts.
What is the limit of such obedience ? At many points we attempted to establish a boundary. Cries from the victims were inserted; not good enough. The victim claimed heart trouble; subjects still shocked him on command. The victim pleaded that he be let free, and his answer no longer registered on the signal box; subjects continued to shock him….The results, as seen and felt in the laboratory, are to this author disturbing…A substantial of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act and without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority. /p. 37)
In a controlled experiment Milgram set out to find how far ordinary humans would be willing to cause pain to others when ordered to do so. The results of his by now famous study demonstrated that contrary to popular belief and even that of a battery of 40 psychiatrists, individuals ordered to inflict pain on others by an authority they considered legitimate, would go very far in complying with such orders, even when they felt such action as contrary to their own conscience. Compliance with such orders diminished to the extent that the victims were brought physically closer to the actor. However, even in the case of touch-proximity, a quarter of the subjects proceeded to inflict the highest degree of pain.
The experiment has bearings on bombing campaigns and economic oppression, which are indirect, non-proximate, forms of causing sufferings and harm. The indirect manner in which economic oppression and distance killing causes harm helps to remove the sufferings from the cognitive experience of the perpetrator. The institutional setting under which economic oppression and remote warfare are pursued, imbues in addition a sense of legitimacy to the perpetrators. Both the remoteness of the victims (their invisibility) and the institutional setting facilitate the continuation of oppressive measures. An institution has no feelings. It may be argued that because of the ease in which such policies are pursued, it would be necessary to punish such acts more seriously than direct assault, in order to provide a higher degree of deterrence.
What can be done to counteract these forces ?
- Accountability, including criminal liability, must be attached to any public policy, particularly those who affect the remote conditions of existence of human populations
- Procedures must be established to provide a cognitive feed-back from those affected from policies to the policy-makers. Such feed-back must be as unmediated as possible.
- The legitimacy of the institutional setting must be ensured by truly democratic means, including the consent of the potential targets of policies.