Experimenter

A new film about Stanley Milgram relives the received wisdom on his experiments.

Posted Oct 22, 2015

By Stephen Reicher and Alex Haslam

At the very end of Experimenter—a dramatization of the life and work of Stanley Milgram with Peter Sarsgaard as Stanley and Winona Ryder as his wife Alexandra—the Milgram character turns to the camera and explains that, while his Yale Obedience studies have their critics, their detractors, their implacable foes, whenever there is a massacre or an atrocity in the world, people turn back to these studies in order to understand. What is more, the studies are covered in nearly every introductory psychology text book.

Magnolia Pictures
Source: Magnolia Pictures

Both these claims are true. And it is both the strength and the weakness of this film that it brings to life what 'every student knows' in a way that is both compelling and entertaining.

The film touches on many aspects of Milgram's life: meeting his wife Sasha, moving to Yale, failing to get tenure at Harvard, moving to City College in New York. It also covers many aspects of Milgram's work: the research with Solomon Asch on conformity, the lost letter studies, the six degrees of separation, the mental representation of cities. It emphasises the creativity and the theatricality of his work, his obsession with photography and film and even song. But, of course, ultimately it always returns to Yale, to obedience, to the work that shocked the world, and to the intellectual and ethical fallout of that work. Like those Olympic gymnasts who won gold at the age of 13, Milgram can never escape being defined in terms of early glory against which everything else is a disappointment.

Hence, for over half of the film we see a loving re-enactment of the Yale study—or rather (and this is critical) the well-known 'new baseline' study—in which the teacher only hears from the learner, who supposedly has a mild coronary condition, through an intercom. We watch through Milgram's eyes (he is shown sitting behind a one way mirror) as the learning task is explained, the learner is strapped down, and the teacher begins to go through the procedure, applying ever greater electric shocks as the learner starts to make mistakes. We hear the learner (actually a tape recording) expressing pain, voicing objections, invoking his heart condition, demanding to be let out before, finally, lapsing into an ominous silence. We see the teacher get nervous as the objections mount, start to sweat, put his head in his hands and giggle uncontrollably, turning to the experimenter for guidance. And we observe the experimenter—impassive, methodical—telling the teacher to continue. Above all, we see the participant inexorably moving up through the shock levels, all the way to the maximum of 450v. Then we see another do the same. Then another. And another and another. 

It is this slow, relentless and seemingly inevitable progression towards the lethal endpoint of the shock generator that constitutes the core drama of the film. That progression is underlined time and time again both in what we are told and what we are shown. Over 80 percent of the sessions we are shown are examples of obedience. Lest we miss the evidence before our eyes, one of the first sessions we see has  Milgram telling us "he went all the way—most of them do." Slightly later he asserts "the vast majority go to the final switch. Going to the end is the norm."

In time we are told that the actual percentage who went on to the bitter end was 65 percent. This is repeated several times. This figure is accurate as long as one is referring specifically to the 'new baseline' study. But this was only one of many variants (albeit often the only one mentioned in textbooks). To be fair, the film acknowledges this and outlines some of the others: the proximity study where the teacher has to force the learner’s hand onto an electric contact plate, the Bridgeport study, which was conducted in shabby commercial offices rather than Yale's resplendent labs. But it asserts that these other variants show much the same thing as the baseline: “They advance to the last switch.”

This is simply wrong. The percentage of 'completers' varies from zero to 92.5 percent amongst the published studies and from zero to 100 percent if one includes further unpublished studies. What is more, across all these variants, a majority of 58 percent disobeyed. One might retort that this is quibbling, that the amazing thing is that anyone would inflict apparently lethal shocks simply because an experimenter told them to do so. But if we focus so exclusively on obedience that we all but write resistance out of the picture, not only do we produce a distorted picture but we also produce a distorted explanation of why people obey when they do.

Milgram himself came up with many explanations both in his 1974 book Obedience to Authority and in his unpublished notebooks. The film focuses on just one, the one which Milgram outlined in most detail, the one which is reproduced in many textbooks, the notion of an 'agentic state.' According to this idea, people come to see themselves purely as instruments of authority and they concentrate on this to the exclusion of all else—including the consequences of their actions for their victims. In lay terms, people have a predisposition to obey orders.

This idea is controversial, to say the least. Even Milgram's strongest admirers remain unconvinced. For there is little evidence in the studies that people concentrate exclusively on the voice of the experimenter. Were that so, why would they be so troubled by the objections of the learner? Moreover, if people are programmed to obey orders, why is it that when they are ordered (as opposed to requested) to continue—being told “you have no choice, you must continue”—that they respond by refusing to obey? Even the film shows this. The two times we catch a fleeting glimpse of resistance are the two times when the experimenter issues a direct order.

Still, as shown in the film, Milgram seeks to give credibility to his explanation by hitching it to Hannah Arendt's notion of the banality of evil, which derived from her analysis of the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Before he entered the courtroom, Arendt observed, people expected a monstrous figure of epic proportion. What they got was an insignificant balding bureaucrat. Everything he did, Milgram tells us and the film tells us, was ‘acting on instructions.’ Once again this is what the textbooks tell us, and once again this is wrong. Eichmann thrived because of his creativity and his autonomy. Indeed, when, in 1944, his boss Himmler wanted to agree to a deal with the Allies that would save Jewish lives, Eichmann fought him because, far from mechanically obeying orders, he truly believed in total extermination.

In sum, the film faithfully reproduces the textbook version of Milgram. Moreover, it does so in a captivating way. But the textbook version is incorrect. Does this render the film worthless? Quite the contrary. The point of what we do as teachers is not to give people all the answers. It is to get them to care about the questions and thereby motivate them to want to find out more. One cannot watch this film without becoming engrossed by the issues it raises. One cannot help but be drawn in by fundamental questions about the human capacity to inflict harm, and the ways we are able to study this.

The real contribution of The Experimenter thus lies less in what it shows and where it ends and more in inviting us to go further, to read more, to discover and engage with the rich and ongoing debate concerning obedience.  Then we can make up our own minds. We need not always do as we are told. 

Stephen Reicher is Professor of Social Psychology and former Head of the School of Psychology at the University of St. Andrews. Alex Haslam is a professor of psychology and Australian Research Council Australian Laureate Fellow in the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland.