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Beyond the Shock Machine

Posted on Sep 13, 2013
New Press

By Gabriel Thompson

(Page 2)

The trauma, as Perry discovers when visiting volunteers many years later, was quite real. “I actually checked the death notices in The New Haven Register for at least two weeks after the experiment to see if I had been involved and a contributing factor in the death of the so-called learner,” one subject told her. Another wrote, “When no response came … with the stronger voltage I really believed the man was probably dead.” But these accounts, like much in the book, further muddy the water, making it hard to draw conclusions. If the experiment seemed real enough that a number of people thought they might have actually killed someone, what to make of those that claimed they thought it was all a setup? Might some simply be covering their ass? If I had run the circuit of the shock machine and then learned it was fake, I’d likely claim that I knew it all along as well.

And what about the link to Eichmann, with Milgram once referring to those who obeyed as “moral imbeciles” who could staff “death camps”? As Perry writes, “How could Milgram have measured destructive obedience, the authors asked, if his subjects saw the experimenter as a benign authority? Didn’t they naturally perceive the lab as a safe place, and the experimenter’s imperviousness to the learner’s cries as evidence that they weren’t really inflicting pain?” Perry cites critics, such as Diana Baumrind, who attacked Milgram’s dramatic claims about Nazis in New Haven: “The social psychologist’s laboratory, [Baumrind] argued, could hardly replicate a ‘real-life experience’ such as Nazi Germany.  His subjects had little in common with SS subordinates: the SS man was likely to regard his victims as subhuman and believe both he and his superior officer were working together for a ‘great cause.’ The guilt and conflict of Milgram’s subjects were further evidence that the parallel between the Yale laboratory and concentration camps was weak.” Another academic, Don Mixon, argued that the project didn’t reveal our readiness to commit immoral acts, but instead the faith we place in experts. “People go to great lengths, will suffer great distress, to be good,” he told Perry. “People got caught up in trying to be good and trusting the expert. Both are usually thought of as virtues, not as evils.”

The greatest shortcoming of the book is that Perry doesn’t interrogate such claims. It is too bad that Baumrind could not read Christopher Browning’s extraordinary 1992 book, “Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland.” Browning recounts how a group of non-military, non-ideological, older family men, who “went through their formative period in the pre-Nazi era,” were turned into killers, despite being tormented by guilt and conflict.

And since when has trusting experts been considered a virtue? And based on Perry’s interviews and archival digging, plenty of participants believed they were inflicting pain, and they inflicted such pain precisely because they viewed Yale as a benign authority. Milgram, whose Jewish parents fled Eastern Europe, sought from the beginning to link his findings to the Nazis. In that he failed. But he shed light on something subtler: our disposition, once we have identified authority figures as benign, to trust and follow their orders, even when they appear reckless and cruel. Soon after Milgram’s experiment, we should remember, “experts” led our country into a disastrous war in Vietnam, and more recently, “expert” bankers (and regulators) played a central role in driving our economy into the ground. Many subjects in the experiments, faced with a very confusing situation, decided in the end to trust the expert. Surely, they reasoned, the experts won’t let things get out of control. History tells us otherwise.

Gabriel Thompson has written for The New York Times, New York, The Nation and Mother Jones. His most recent book is “Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won’t Do.”

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