Shock and Awe

Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View BY Stanley Milgram. Harper Perennial Modern Classics. . $15.

IN STANLEY MILGRAM'S most famous experiment, sometimes referred to as "The Milgram Experiment," a subject who thinks that he or she is participating in a study about memory and punishment is brought into a room by an authority figure and given the title of "teacher." This teacher will supposedly be testing a so-called learner's aptitude for memorization during a word-association game. (As it turns out, the "learner" is actually an actor, but the teacher doesn't know this.) The authority figure explains that whenever the learner gets an answer wrong, the teacher must administer electric shocks to the learner in increasing dosages, from fifteen to 450 volts. If the teacher makes any effort to end the proceedings, the authority figure makes the following statements, in order:

Please continue, or, Please go on.

The experiment requires that you continue.

It is absolutely essential that you continue.

You have no other choice, you must go on.

There are two conditions under which the experiment can end: if the teacher still wants to stop after the authority figure utters all four of those statements, or if the teacher administers the maximum dosage of 450 volts to the learner three times.

According to Milgram's book Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (1974), in the first version (or "Condition 1") of the experiment, Milgram found that 65 percent of the teachers would have administered lethal shocks to the stranger in the booth. This oft-quoted statistic has come to stand in for some essential evil in mankind, but of course it doesn't tell the whole story. Milgram created many different Conditions as well. In Condition 4, the learner stays in the room and the teacher has to physically put the learner's hand on an electrical plate him- or herself. In that version, the percentage of subjects who went all the way dropped by about half. In Condition 12, the learner demands to be shocked, while the authority figure forbids it, and in that case, none of the subjects ever administered a lethal shock. Nor did they do so in Condition 15, when two authority figures publicly disagreed about whether or not to continue the experiment. Mostly though, it's utterly heartbreaking, in the documentary Milgram made about his experiment, to watch so many people try so hard to do the right thing, argue vigorously with the authority figure, and then suddenly cave in and go well beyond the point where they might have killed someone, had the shocks been real.

David Shrigley, Good, Evil, Don’t Know, 1995, ink on paper, 5 3/4 × 4 1/8". Courtesy the artist.

But what I want to point out is more basic: Milgram's initial study included eighteen different Conditions, which were presented to a total of 620 teachers. The most chilling statistic for me, though it gets only an asterisk in his study, is that out of those 620 people, only two declined to participate at all. The ingenuity of the experiment's specifics should not be overlooked. Imagine, for a moment, that instead of electrical shocks, Milgram had displayed a series of knives, each larger than the last, and said to the teacher, "You're going to stab the learner every time he gets an answer wrong." I imagine that the results would have been quite different. As Milgram himself puts it in the introduction to his book, "A reader's initial reaction to the experiment may be to wonder why anyone in his right mind would administer even the first shocks. Would he not simply refuse and walk out of the laboratory? But the fact is that no one ever does." The two who walked out were both from Condition 10, which Milgram conducted in an office suite in Bridgeport, Connecticut, rather than on the intimidating campus of Yale University.

The fact that 618 people agreed to hurt a stranger based on an obedience to authority tells me more than I need to know about human nature. We are all aware of how easy it is to be cruel to people we perceive to be at a distance from us in some way—just the mention of the word drone should call that fact to mind. But what we don't see as often, because we think of ourselves as "nice people," is how complicit we already are in the suffering of others, how difficult it is to be like those two who walked out of Condition 10.

As a novelist, I have attempted to show how the abuse of power destroys people at every level, and Milgram's work has influenced many of my ideas about this. His experiment also has much to tell us about what we should avoid now. It could help prevent the massive failures of empathy that we are seeing erupt all over our country at the moment. The time to stop cruelty is not the minute after you've killed someone; it's not the moment when you have administered a nonlethal shock. It's when you realize that the terms you've been handed by authority figures are unjust, that they are harmful to others even in the smallest ways, and that the only humane choice is to reject them. To put it another way: You have other choices, you don't have to go on.

James Hannaham is the author of the novels God Says No (McSweeney's, 2009) and Delicious Foods (Little, Brown, 2015), which was a runner-up for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.