In 1963, Stanley Milgram, a Yale psychologist began a series of studies “intended to measure the willingness of a participant to obey an authority who instructs the participant to do something that may conflict with the participant’s personal conscience.”[i] Milgram began his experiments a few months after the start of the Adolph Eichman trial in Nuremberg. Milgram was fascinated by the possibility that the heinous crimes committed by Eichman his fellow Nazis were actually the result of just following orders.
Several web sites refer to the Milgram Experiments as a study of depravity. It certainly tests a person’s obedience and compliance to authority, if not their level of sadism.
These experiments and others like them requiring potential harm to human subjects have been deemed unethical for the past forty years. That must have sounded like a perfect invitation for the ABC news primetime magazine television show, Primetime Live. On January 3rd, 2007, Primetime Live, dedicated an hour to the Milgram and other related experiments. Video clips from The Science of Evil may be seen here.
A pair of subjects are hired for $50 and told they will be part of an experiment. They can keep the money whether they complete the experiment or not.
One person is the teacher and the other, the learner. The two participants are given the illusion that the roles were assigned randomly. Each participant is placed in separate rooms with a solid wall between them. In some versions of the experiment the learner tells the teacher and researcher that he or she has a heart problem (this version was featured on ABC). The learner then has electrodes attached to his or her hand while the teacher and researcher go into the other room.
The learner is in on the ruse and will act like he or she is being shocked or a tape recording of a person screaming will be played on cue. The teacher is told that he or she must administer a word memory test to the learner on the other side of the wall. Each time the learner gives an incorrect answer the teacher must throw a switch labeled with an increasing voltage. Throwing that switch will electrocute the learner and the learner will undoubtedly scream. The range of voltage delivered by the machine was from 45 to 450 volts. In some experiments the teacher was given a blast of 45 volts to demonstrate that the machine was not dangerous albeit unpleasant.
The researcher wears a lab coat and sits behind the teacher administering the test and the punishment. If the teacher’s conscience or sense of morality caused them to question the experiment or worry about the learner, the researcher would offer a series of verbal prods in the following order:
- Please continue.
- The experiment requires that you continue.
- It is absolutely essential that you continue.
- You have no other choice, you must go on.
No other threats or acts of coercion are employed.
If the teacher refused to continue, the experiment would be halted. The experiment would also end after the learner had received shocks of the maximum 450-volts three times in succession.
In Milgram’s original Yale Study 65% of subjects administered the maximum shock, regardless of their discomfort or misgivings. None of his subjects quit before 300 volts – more than twice-household AC voltage. Primetime Live, for ethical purposes, terminated the experiment at 150 volts, but found similar results to the 1963 study.
There mere presence of an unknown authority figure in a lab coat caused a majority of men and women (on the ABC program more women complied) to electrocute a complete stranger. The producers of Primetime Live made the timely and inevitable comparisons to the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.
Why is this Being Discussed in an Education Publication?
While watching the television show I began thinking about how the Milgram Experiments relate to educator conduct during the No Child Left Behind and the growing obsession with student accountability as manifest in testing. Surely educators know that teaching to the test robs the curriculum of its relevance and richness. They must know that recess, art, music, science, electives and extra-curricular activities are good for children. The absence of these opportunities is harmful. Teachers know about student anxiety, vomiting and pants wetting invoked by the tests. Heck, products are sold to help students manage their test-induced anxiety and teachers are provided instructions for handling vomit soaked answer sheets. Reports of cheating and physical abuse of students linked to test scores are becoming more common.
Could such irrational behavior harmful to innocent victims be related to the Milgram Experiments? Did I really want to connect standardized testing to the Nazis and electrocuting strangers?
The teacher asked the researcher, “There isn’t going to be any lawsuit from this medical facility, right?” When told that the teacher was not liable, she replied, “That’s what I needed to know.” It is however worth noting that this was after she induced the maximum shock and the learner demanded that the experiment be terminated.
Other subjects said that they inflicted the pain because they were not responsible for what occurred. The researcher was responsible since he told them to do it, even if he never left his desk or raised his voice.
But then ABC News and the teacher herself gave me a perfectly wrapped gift suitable for sharing with you.
When informed of the experimental ruse and asked why she was so willing to inflict pain on a stranger, the teacher looked straight into the camera and participated in the following exchange with ABC News reporter Chris Cuomo.
Cuomo: “You heard the man say, ‘my heart hurts’.”
Teacher: “I did.”
Cuomo: “Just having the guy in the lab coat say, ‘keep going; it’s fine; I’m telling you it’s fine;’ somewhat divorced you from your own decision-making power?”
Teacher: “Oh sure, It’s just like when I’m told to administer the state tests for hours on end.”
Cuomo: “You’re doing your job?”
Teacher: “I’m doing my job.”
If that exchange does not send a chill down your spine, nothing will.
Many of my colleagues and I have heard an increasing number of educators justify a variety of bizarre or unsavory pedagogical practices based on a need for compliance or obedience to authority. What would Milgram say about this trend?
In his 2001 book, American Psychology and Schools – A Critique, Seymour Sarason asks why the American psychological community has been so silent on the explosion of high-stakes testing and other school-related issues pertaining to children. If the APA has banned human experiments such as those performed by Milgram shouldn’t they raise their collective voices against high-stakes testing? How about going on Primetime Live or Good Morning America and at least sharing some concern?
“The social psychology of this century reveals a major lesson: often it is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act.” (Stanley Milgram, 1974)[v]
This article was originally published in The Pulse: Education’s Place for Debate on Thursday, January 04, 2007 8:26 AM
Veteran educator Gary Stager, Ph.D. is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, publisher at Constructing Modern Knowledge Press, and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools thirty years ago and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Gary is also the curator of The Seymour Papert archives at DailyPapert.com. Learn more about Gary here.