The Electric Shock experiments: They teach us more than their creator, Stanley Milgram, realized

authoritarian personality, Milgram, obedience, psychological experiments, social psychology, social space

The background: How could the Holocaust, with its grotesque character of mass murder happen in a country as “civilized” as modern Germany? Was it due to Germans being brought up to be obedient to authority – thanks to German authoritarian fathers, who set them up for it? Surely Americans, with their very different upbringing, would not be so prone to obedience.   Stanley Milgram, a young psychologist, set out to test this hunch in what became known as a series of famous electric shock experiments in a laboratory at Yale University, starting in 1961.

To Milgram’s surprise his American participants in the experiment behaved just like the proverbial Germans – they obeyed orders when a person in authority demanded that they perform horrifying actions. Milgram believed this indicates that obedience-to-authority is not merely a matter of the German character but that, on the contrary, it is a distinctly human attribute – one we all share.

It occurs to me that Milgram failed to recognize a fundamental feature of his experiments. Yes, there was obedience-to-authority. But something else took place as well.   In his experiment Milgram unwittingly, but in reality, created a Closed Moral World. It contained a specific set of values and rewards. These persuaded the participants that by their own actions they were making very important contributions to science, even if these actions were difficult for them. And they were doing so under the umbrella, and tacit approval, of a famous university. At the same time their outside morality, their moral upbringing, was emphatically excluded.

Perhaps the saddest outcome was that the participants accepted the new moral system, this “Closed Moral World”. Despite diverging from their own upbringing, they felt good about taking part in it.

I explore such “Closed Moral Worlds” — how they happen in the real world, not only in artificially contrived laboratory experiments – in my book, Fred Emil Katz, OUR QUEST FOR EFFECTIVE LIVING: A WINDOW TO A NEW SCIENCE / HOW WE COPE IN SOCIAL SPACE.