Theory & Psychology Special Issue: “Unplugging the Milgram Machine”

The October 2015 issue of Theory & Psychology is a special issue on “Unplugging the Milgram Machine.” Guest edited by Augustine Brannigan, Ian Nicholson, and Frances Cherry the issue includes a number of articles of interest to AHP readers. Full titles, authors, and abstracts follow below.

“Introduction to the special issue: Unplugging the Milgram machine,” by Augustine Brannigan, Ian Nicholson, and Frances Cherry. The abstract reads,

The current issue of Theory & Psychology is devoted to Stanley Milgram and his contribution to the study of obedience. It presents a decidedly critical evaluation of these well-known experiments that challenges their relevance to our understanding of events such as the Holocaust. It builds on recent investigations of the Milgram archive at Yale. The discipline’s adulation of the obedience research overlooks several critical factors: the palpable trauma experienced by many participants, and the stark skepticism of the deceptive cover-story experienced by many others, Milgram’s misrepresentation of the way in which the prods were undertaken to ensure standardization, and his failure to de-brief the vast majority of participants. There is also the cherry-picking of findings. The project was whitewashed in the film, Obedience, prepared by Milgram to popularize his conclusions. The articles contributed for this issue offer a more realistic assessment of Milgram’s contribution to knowledge.

“Coverage of recent criticisms of Milgram’s obedience experiments in introductory social psychology textbooks,” by Richard A. Griggs and George I. Whitehead III. The abstract reads,

This article has two purposes: (a) to broaden awareness of recent criticisms of Milgram’s obedience experiments by providing a relatively inclusive review of them interlaced within a discussion of Gina Perry’s main substantive criticisms and (b) to report the findings of our coverage analysis for recent criticisms in current introductory social psychology textbooks. Past coverage analyses have found a “Milgram-friendly” trend (little or no discussion or even acknowledgment of the large body of criticism published from 1964 onward) that evolved in textbooks from the 1960s to the 1990s and has become more pronounced since that time period. Our findings on coverage of recent criticisms were consistent with those of past text analyses. None of the recent criticisms were covered, even in the social psychology textbooks dated 2015. We discuss a possible explanation for these findings that involves a proposed knowledge-conserving function of social psychology textbooks.

“Milgram’s shock experiments and the Nazi perpetrators: A contrarian perspective on the role of obedience pressures during the Holocaust,” by Allan Fenigstein. The abstract reads,

In contrast to many scholars who believe that Milgram’s studies of obedience provide an incisive understanding of the Holocaust perpetrators, this article argues that pressures to obey authority had little role in the Holocaust. Unlike Milgram’s participants, most Nazi perpetrators showed no remorse or moral distress over the murders, severely compromising the explanatory necessity of obedience pressures; the excesses of the Nazis’ brutal and wanton cruelty, and the enthusiasm shown in the killing process, is entirely inconsistent with the behavior of the laboratory participants and with the concept of dutiful, but emotionless, obedience; and finally, when Milgram’s participants had the chance to evade giving shock, they frequently seized that opportunity; in contrast, although Nazi killers were often given the opportunity to withdraw from the killing operations, very few chose to do so. These arguments suggest that most of the Nazi perpetrators believed in what they were doing, and would have been willing, perhaps even eager to kill Jews, even in the absence of orders to do so.

“Designing obedience in the lab: Milgram’s shock simulator and human factors engineering,” by Maya Oppenheimer. The abstract reads,

This article probes the design history of Stanley Milgram’s simulated shock generator by comparing drawings and notes from Milgram’s archive in the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale with laboratory equipment and apparatus catalogues from the Archives of the History of American Psychology, University of Akron. By applying contemporaneous human factors engineering principles to the generator’s control panel layout, sequencing, and display optimisation, an argument emerges that suggests the tailor-made device had an influential role in facilitating the behaviour witnessed in the laboratory and generalised as obedience. Such an approach puts forward a new reading of Milgram’s experiment design, his penchant for dramaturgy, and reconsiders his generalisation of obedience to social authority.

“Seeing is believing: The role of the film Obedience in shaping perceptions of Milgram’s Obedience to Authority experiments,” by Gina Perry. The abstract reads,

Stanley Milgram’s film Obedience is widely used in teaching about the Obedience to Authority studies. It is frequently a student’s first introduction to Milgram’s research and has been a powerful force in establishing the scientific authority of the experiments. This article contextualizes the filming, selection of footage, and final editing of the film against growing ethical and methodological criticisms of Milgram’s research. I argue that Milgram’s film should be viewed as a response and reply to the criticisms expressed by the National Science Foundation when they refused funding for further experiments. Obedience, the film, originally conceived as a record for future researchers, transformed into a visual document aimed at disarming critics and establishing the universality and profundity of Milgram’s findings. Milgram aimed in the film to reconcile the quantitative and the qualitative aspects of the experiments through a scientific narration and footage of participants in action. A close reading reveals that while the film is scientifically unconvincing, and an unreliable account of the Milgram’s research, it succeeds spectacularly as arresting and compelling drama.

“The normalization of torment: Producing and managing anguish in Milgram’s “Obedience” laboratory,” by Ian Nicholson. The abstract reads,

Milgram framed his “Obedience” experiments as an inquiry into the Holocaust, posing state directed mass murder as a “conflict between conscience and authority.” However, recent research into atrocities suggests that “moral conflict” is often absent; murder is frequently undertaken willingly in a spirit of idealism and “normalcy.” The question is not why do people obey orders they find morally objectionable as Milgram suggested, but rather how does it become “normal” and “ok” to torture or kill defenseless people? I examine this question through a reinterpretation of the Obedience study. Instead of focusing on the confused and entrapped participants, people who were tricked into “immoral” action, I study the scientists themselves—individuals who applied enhanced stress techniques on innocent people repeatedly and enthusiastically, fully aware of what they were doing. Inverting Milgram’s Holocaust analogy, I suggest that recent scholarship on Nazi doctors can provide insights into the various ways that torment became “normalized” for Milgram and his assistants.

“Obedience in perspective: Psychology and the Holocaust,” by George R. Mastroianni. The abstract reads,

Stanley Milgram’s explanation of the Holocaust in terms of the mechanism of obedience is too narrow. While obedience was one mechanism which contributed to the outcome, the murder of Jews and others was the work of people from a broad swath of German society, from economists who planned mass starvation to ordinary soldiers in the Wehrmacht, often acting without duress or apparent pressures to conform. Psychologists should not ask “why?” the Holocaust occurred, but “how?” Much behavior of perpetrators, bystanders, victims, and instigators can be understood as the consequence of normal mechanisms of perception, learning, socialization, and development. What made genocide possible was not the transitory conditions created in a lab in a few hours but a complex of mechanisms that are the product of generations of human experience and of elaborate rational, emotional, and logical justifications. This requires a more complex future psychology than the narrow focus on situationist obedience.

“Acting otherwise: Resistance, agency, and subjectivities in Milgram’s studies of obedience,” by Ethan Hoffman, N. Reed Myerberg, and Jill G. Morawski. The abstract reads,

In this account of the Obedience to Authority experiments, we offer a richer and more dynamic depiction of the subjects’ acts and reactions. To paraphrase Milgram, our account tries to examine the central elements of the situation as perceived by its research subjects. We describe a model of the experimenter–subject system that moves beyond experimentalism and humanism, positing instead a model that considers experimenter–subject relations and extends both spatially and temporally past the experiment’s traditionally assumed limits: the walls of the laboratory and its canonical methods. Following Butler and Krause, we propose an approach that attends to quotidian, subtle, and unregistered ways of acting otherwise. Taking the Yale archive’s collection of Milgram’s subject files, audio recordings, and notes as historical traces of the experimenter–subject system, our analysis introduces a grounded understanding of how Milgram’s cut between obedience and disobedience renders invisible all but the most explicit manifestations of resistance or ways of acting otherwise. Investigating Milgram’s work through an experimenter–subject systems model illuminates previously undocumented affective and temporal dimensions of laboratory life and serves as a template for assessing other experimental situations.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.