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Unique Experiments that Illuminated Our True Human Natures.
Stanley Milgram
Book Review With Commentary

Reviewed by Harry Rosenberg.

If there is a kernel to the story of violence in American culture, this book is that kernel. Milgram adds magnificently to the pioneering work of Adorno et al on the Authoritarian Personality. Milgram details his many rigorous experiments, and interprets them relentlessly. His own many replications, backed up by many others, along with the precursor study by Theodor Adorno et al, the later studies of Phillip Zimbardo, Bob Altemeyer, and Martha Stout (indirectly) that culminate in John Dean's indictment of the Neocons, add up to such a strong consistency, his several theses simply must be true. Unfortunately, they are tough to swallow. We quote from chapter 15, Milgram's assessment of American society:

    "Each individual possesses a conscience, which to a greater or lesser degree serves to restrain the unimpeded flow of impulses destructive of others. But when he merges his person into an organizational structure, a new creature replaces autonomous man, unhindered by the limitations of individual morality, freed of humane inhibition, mindful only of the sanctions of authority."

    "It is ironic that the virtues of loyalty, discipline, and self-sacrifice that we value so highly in the individual are the very properties that create destructive organizational engines of war and blind men to malevolent systems of authority."

    "This is a fatal flaw nature has designed into us, and which in the long run gives our species only modest chance for survival." --
    Stanley Milgram

Most American's we know laughed when they first heard the story of how ordinary people can apply severe electric shock to a person in an experiment on learning. But this is no laughing matter. Rather it is an indictment of our culture, one of the most violent of the developed countries as measured by cold statistics. Our research on this site has progressed to the point where we can say with confidence that not only was Milgram right on, he accurately illuminated the psycho/social pressures inherent in American society. See Milgram for further details. Better yet, see his book.

Like Adorno before him, Milgram came in for a lot of questions, mostly regarding methodology. But his extensive work not only met these objections, it extended the conclusions he could draw. By varying the conditions of the experiment, he illuminated several features about how people deal with their consciences, or how they rationalize it all away. In follow-up interviews, the responses of his multitude of subjects played an important role in his conclusions.

To ignore the lessons of the Holocaust may be understandable. It was after all the Nazis, not us. My Lai was another matter; less easily it was swept under the table of the America's collective conscience, but swept under nevertheless. Abu Ghraib, like My Lai, convicted the people in immediate charge, leaving the cause of that attitude unattended to. That cause was Milgram's primary contribution to sociololgy, and it is as disturbing as it is insightful.

A clinical psychologist, Martha Stout, provides further insights into the folks participating in Milgram's experiments, American like you and me. People he called "queer ducks" were Stout's sociopaths! In her "The Sociopath Next Door." Stout zeros in on just what makes up the extreme of the extreme--those without conscience or ordinary morality, those who must win at any cost, those who leave devastation in their wakes. How they can get away with that is Stout's truly great insight. Please, everyone, if you care about your progeny, read both of these books, each is a oner. Stout identified the very people Milgram feared most, for they can sway the rest of us into unspeakable acts of violence. Mike Wallace on CBS interviewed a soldier at My Lai:

Mike Wallace interviewed a soldier directly involved in the slaughter: "What kind of people--men, women, children?"

Soldier: "Men, women, children."

Mike Wallace: "Babies?"

Soldier: "Babies. And we huddled them up. We made them squat down and Lieutenent Calley came over and said, 'You know what to do with them, don't you?' And I said, 'yes'. So I took it for granted that he just wanted us to watch them. And he left, and later came back about 10 or 15 minutes later and said, 'How come you ain't killed them yet?' And I told him that 'I didn't think you wanted us to kill them, that you just wanted us to guard them.' He said, 'No I want them dead.' So--"

Milgram zeros in on the obedience issue that our culture inculcates and glorifies in our military. [Obedience is the main goal and result in basic training.] Sadly it is merely an extension of our culture, not just a necessary exception in the interest of national survival. Two presidents, Johnson and Bush, escape blame--after all they too were/are products of our culture which derives its moral directives from "authority." Never mind that they are the top dogs to which the rest of us are obedient to. Never mind behaviors remindful of the sociopath, Milgram filled us in on how individuals are nurtured to be blind obeyers. He acknowledged the role of genetics. But his real gem, as disturbing as it is, is most enlightening. And we can use it, for when we know the enemy, he should be ours. When we do not know the enemy, sooner or later, we will become his--because our denial will continue leading us astray.

And Milgram is right in another sense. To focus on the aggressor may be hopeless as long as we inculcate [blind] obedience into each new generation. This cultural issue in child development and growth is what needs addressing. Until Internal Loci of Control becomes "the order of the day" for parents, teachers, and others in socializing-responsible positions, to counterbalance societal pressures, External Loci of Control, we are doomed to remain a violent culture. Milgram feared that fact may doom humanity as well. We fear the same result, and recent history shows just how fragile our American democratic society is. That, too, Milgram foretold!

Milgram showed that much of the problem of violence can be attributed to society itself, regardless of political organization, and he was candid and insightful in his interpretations. He found a number of common themes among those participating in war, genocide and massacres. To quote and paraphrase:

  • People involved are dominated by an administrative rather than moral outlook.
  • People act out in a sense of doing their duty where their actions are governed by an authority higher than their own.
  • Individual values of loyalty, duty, and discipline derive from the technical needs of the hierarchy.
  • Euphemisms replace verbal moral concepts. [e.g. Collateral damage in our times.]
  • Responsibility shifts upward in the eyes of the soldier.
  • Some highly constructive or noble light of ideology is propagandized; Hitler's words were a hygienic process against Jewish vermin.
  • It is bad form to even talk to comrades about what one does.
  • Psychological adjustments come into play to ease the moral burden. [Healthy coping mechanisms in any other context.]
  • Obedience does not involve a clash of will, but is embedded in a larger atmosphere where social relationships, career aspirations, and technical routines set the dominant tone.

We give Milgram's book ten stars ********** because the traditional five stars ***** is simply not enough when we think of the import of his message on the future of humankind.

26 Dec 2008 update:

Many observers believe Milgram was denied tenure at Yale because of the controversy his work created. His use of 450 volts to inflict pain was seen by some as too extreme--even though no shock at all was ever administered. Others felt his cohorts were not representative or were not adequately advised that they could back out at any time. These critics will now have a harder time because Jerry M. Burger of University of Santa Clara University has firmly replicated Milgram's findings with essentially the same results--without the loop holes supposedly left by Milgram. See Milgram Confirmed for more on Burger's confirmation. The conceptual linkage Milgram forged between Adorno and Zimbardo is now as firm as formal science can make it.

01 Dec 13 Update

It has now come to light that Milgram did not report all of his data in his book. That omission, our view, would be sufficient to deny him tenure at any legitimate university. Some of his omissions were counter to his main conclusion. But our review, the fact that other investigators replicated his work, and because his work is consilient most notably with Adorno and Zimbardo lead us to continue to rely on his findings as being generally correct.


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