The assumption that informed all of Milgram’s experiments was that his experimental subjects weren’t naturally malicious, and wouldn’t shock another volunteer of their own volition. He had ample evidence in the reactions of his subjects, in their reluctance and anguish.
And he demonstrated it directly. In one experimental permutation, Milgram had the experimenter instruct the teacher, from another room, via a telephone. The set-up and the instructions were identical – the experimenter insisted just as strenuously on escalating the level of shock. The only difference was the physical absence of the lead investigator. When he was out of sight, the percentage of subjects who were obedient to the maximum level of shock fell from 65% to 20%.
“Moreover, when the experimenter was absent, subjects displayed an interesting form of behavior that had not occurred under his surveillance. Though continuing with the experiment, several subjects administered lower shocks than were required and never informed the experimenter of their deviation from the correct procedure. Indeed, in telephone conversations some subjects specifically assured the experimenter that they were raising the shock level according to instruction, while, in reality, they repeatedly used the lowest shock on the board.”
Then Milgram tried something interesting: he gave the teacher two peers, also secretly confederates of the experimenter, who would refuse to deliver shocks when the student expressed discomfort. The confederate teachers would move to the other side of the room, saying things like, “I’m willing to answer any of your questions, but I’m not willing to shock that man against his will. I’ll have no part of it.”
When in the presence of these braver peers, 90% of Milgram’s subjects refused to follow through to the end of the experiment.
“The effects of peer rebellion are very impressive in undercutting the experimenter’s authority. Indeed, of the score of experimental variations completed in this study, none was so effective in undercutting the experimenter’s authority as the manipulation reported here.”
Milgram understood well what his research showed, and what it meant. If most people are merely obedient, then a very few truly bad actors can do an inordinate amount of damage.
“Any competent manager of a destructive bureaucratic system can arrange his personnel so that only the most callous and obtuse are directly involved in violence. The greater part of the personnel can consist of men and women who, by virtue of their distance from the actual acts of brutality, will feel little strain in their performance of supportive functions. They will feel doubly absolved from responsibility. First, legitimate authority has given full warrant for their actions. Second, they have not themselves committed brutal physical acts.”
But Milgram gives us reasons for optimism as well as pessimism. No one who reads his experiments should feel righteous – everyone is implicated. But even if we look weak, or cowardly, or gullible, through Milgram’s lens, we don’t look cruel. Time and time again, in Milgram’s experiments, our better nature peeks through, when someone else sets a good example, or when the experimenter is out of the room. If there’s one lesson in Milgram, it’s not that we’re obedient murderers; or, it’s not that we’re necessarily obedient murderers. Rather, it’s that we’re essentially unresolved: all it takes is a little push, in either direction. We’re able and willing to shock a man to death, sure, but we’re also able and willing to refuse.
Or, as Milgram put it:
“Those who argue that aggressive motives or sadistic instincts are unleashed when the command to hurt another person is given must take account of the subjects’ adamant refusal to go on in these experiments. It is not what subjects do but for whom they are doing it that counts.”
I strongly recommend reading Milgram’s own writing about his work, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. He tried a great number of experimental variables, and he discusses them clearly and succinctly.