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How Can You Be So Cruel?

The Puppetry of Evil: If circumstances make us cruel, who’s responsible?

I might not be very good at this; writing this blog, that is. After all, I am only just starting. But people do learn, don’t they, sometimes through pain? Suppose that you and I can test this – on me. Suppose that every time you don’t like what I write, you can push a key that delivers an electric shock to my arm, wherever I may be. And the punishment gets ever more painful with every mistake I make. Maybe you can even hear my shrieks as you administer the shocks.

Will you? Why would you? It sounds wrong, it feels wrong. And yet, you just might. Why?

If the question rings a bell, it chimed ever so alarmingly in a certain Yale lab that hosted Stanley Milgram’s 1961 experiments. Milgram asked volunteers to participate in a study about learning through pain, seeking something quite different: in the wake of the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, Milgram wanted to discover the origins of evil, and believed that he did. All his subjects (playing “teachers”) obeyed an experimenter’s instructions to induce increasingly painful electric shocks on people they had only just met (playing “learners”), every time the latter made a mistake in a memory quiz. Most of the teachers went even further, to induce shocks labeled as “extreme,” “severe,” “XXX,” even while the learners cried in anguish, then fell silent, presumably unconscious, possibly dead.

If that’s evil, where does it come from?

Milgram’s titular answer, Obedience to Authority, is insightful; for example, with the experimenter wearing everyday clothes, rather than a lab coat, obedience level dropped to 20 percent. Still, it ultimately falls short. It misses the “legitimacy loop”: you obey authority because it is legitimate, but it is only legitimate because you obey it. Why then obey it in the first place?

Dig deeper, and Milgram offers a way out of this loop, pointing to people’s readiness, even eagerness, to shirk personal responsibility. For many hesitant participants, for example, it was enough that the experimenter explicitly assured them, “the responsibility is mine.” Others quickly put the onus on the struggling learners. And doesn’t the lab coat likewise help us imagine that by wearing it one dresses in responsibility, lifting its weight off us?

But things get complicated. For starters, the role of responsibility is unclear. Milgram early on argues that “the disappearance of a sense of responsibility is the most far-reaching consequence of submission to authority.” Which is it then, consequence or cause?

More importantly, Milgram falls prey to the puppetry paradox that haunts the social sciences. He shows remarkable empathy for his subjects, and why wouldn’t he? After all, people shirk personal responsibility because of pliable social circumstances. Through various iterations of the original experiment, Milgram demonstrates how easily one can tweak people’s sense of personal responsibility, and readiness to obey. Many participants clearly did not want to inflict pain, and many argued with the experimenter, but the experiment configurations defeated them. Psychological situationism won the day.

But if people are mere puppets of circumstances, why should they bear any personal responsibility? In fact, shouldn’t Milgram himself bear it? Yet he too seems to shirk it, operating in the name of science. But then again, wasn’t that the very cause that many participants used to justify their own behavior?

Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with that. Milgram’s experiment is probably the most widely known psychological experiment of all times, driving so many sharp findings and insights. And this is so precisely because the participants obeyed, working indeed in the service of science. In retrospect, couldn’t we say that Milgram’s feigned goal, of studying how we can learn through pain, was realized even more than his concealed goal?

But what have we learned? That responsibility is such a burden that even when we seem to affirm it, we effectively renounce it? Could it be that holding “people as puppets” is the real source of evil? We’ll try to offer some answers in our next blog stop, promising to step on some toes…

 Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Ford Madox Brown, Stages of Cruelty, 1856-1890
Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain


Helm, Charles, and Mario Morelli (1979) Stanley Milgram and the Obedience Experiment: Authority, Legitimacy, and Human Action. Political Theory 7 (3):321-345.

Hollander, Matthew M. (2015) The Repertoire of Resistance: Non-Compliance with Directives in Milgram's ‘Obedience’ Experiments. British Journal of Social Psychology 54 (3):425-444.

Milgram, Stanley (1974) Obedience to Authority; an Experimental View. New York: Harper & Row.

Reicher, Stephen D., S. Alexander Haslam, and Arthur G. Miller (2014) What Makes a Person a Perpetrator? The Intellectual, Moral, and Methodological Arguments for Revisiting Milgram's Research on the Influence of Authority. Journal of Social Issues 70 (3):393-408.

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