Horror auteur Eli Roth has restaged the Milgram Experiment for an American TV show titled How Evil Are You? (for Curiosity, on the Discovery Channel). The show will air sometime today in the USA. This study has captivated popular culture for around half a century. Why is that, given that there are finer social science studies out there?
Stanley Milgram (1933-1984) was a psychologist who set up an experiment in the 1960s where people dressed in lab coats asked participants to administer electric shocks to other people who were in another room. While there was, in fact, no other person receiving these shocks, the participants were not privy to this information. Nevertheless, most people complied with the orders (after some encouragement). You can see a BBC replication of these experiments here. The study argues that most people followed these instructions because human beings have been trained not to question people who are perceived to have a higher authority. Supposedly, the Milgram experiment shows that, given the “right conditions”, most “good people” do as they are told, even if they are instructed to do something “evil”. Milgram’s study is closely affiliated with Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prisoner Experiment, where one group of university students was asked to play the role of prison guards and another group of students played the part of prisoners. The people playing the guards subsequently abused their position of authority.
Even after five decades of controversy and criticism, both the Milgram and Prisoner experiments retain strong cultural authority by offering a similar overarching explanation about the “evil nature” of humanity. These experiments are used in various professional fields such as in management training and they have been used to explain the Holocaust and Nazi war crimes as well as human rights abuses in Abu Ghraib. In 1979, Milgram said on the American 60 Minutes:
I would say, on the basis of having observed a thousand people in the experiment and having my own intuition shaped and informed by these experiments, that if a system of death camps were set up in the United States of the sort we had seen in Nazi Germany, one would be able to find sufficient personnel for those camps in any medium-sized American town. (My emphasis.)
These psych experiments and their supposed “proof” of the notion of “good-versus-evil” have permeated popular culture. American school teacher Jane Elliot’s blue eyed/brown eyed exercise in A Class Divided is based on a role-playing exercise with a similar premise (people are not born racist, they are socially conditioned to discriminate). For a more recent example, see the film The Experiment starring Adrien Brody and Forest Whitaker. (Completely Hollywood but still worth watching.)
Never mind that the Milgram Experiment was not about proving or disproving “evil”, rather about how people respond to authority figures during a lab experiment. The study has been critiqued heavily over the past four decades on the grounds of research ethics - Milgram used deception and potentially scarred the participants. The study has also been criticised for experimental bias. It does not measure how people behave in real life, but rather how they respond to commands in a staged setting. The set up of the original experiment was seen as absurd by some of the participants and so they experienced no qualms about complying with the instructions.
The study was set up to prove the ideology of the scientist; that is, it proved what Milgram already believed about human nature. As this fabulous article by Australian social scientist John Laurent shows, Milgram’s experiment is an excellent example of the social construction of science. The Milgram Experiment continues to be presented as psychological “truth” about the awful side of human nature, particularly in first-year undergraduate textbooks. Yet Laurent argues that Milgram’s research is a historical product borne of a time when B. F. Skinner’s theories of behavourism prevailed and psychologists were less interested in individuals’ subjective understandings of the experiments for which they had volunteered. Psychologist Ian Nicholson argues that the study is best understood as a historical performance of Cold War American masculinity. Subsequent studies claim to replicate the original findings. For example, see this review in A Backstage Sociologist from 2008 and The Situationist from 2007 and 2011. One study has attempted to address the limitations of the original study, by controlling for experimental bias. This study finds that people were less distressed about administering shocks to people of a different racial background - namely North Africans.
Despite all the criticisms arising from the Milgram Experiment - I would still check out the Eli Roth show for Discovery. It’s not only because I am a fanatical horror fiend. Nor do I suggest this because various studies by Me suggest that Roth’s breakout film, Cabin Fever, is one of the best horror films ever. No. In all seriousness, I have a fascination with how science is portrayed in popular culture, especially social science. I see that there is sociological merit in understanding how scientific theories take hold of mass culture. The Milgram experiment tells us very little about humanity. Sociologists generally do not ascribe to any universal truths about “human nature”. Instead, the cultural fascination and reproduction of Milgram’s research in popular culture tells us more about the mainstream “Western” collective mindset that reduces the idea of human ethics and decision-making into easily digestible one-line discourses, such as “all human beings are inherently good or evil” or “most good people do bad things because other people tell them to”.
I am deeply interested in good-versus-evil narratives (which is why I love horror films so much) specifically because I do not subscribe to simplistic explanations of human behaviour. More on horror films very soon. (I’ve been working on an ode to zombie films.) For now, keep an eye out for this new Roth special and get into Cabin Fever if you like your horror films to be funny and clever. I also recommend the superbly-crafted horror The Last Exorcism, which Roth’s production company supported. (But probably avoid the Hostel franchise because it’s not Roth’s best work to my mind.)
Roth’s special How Evil Are You? airs sometime today in America. In the mean time, check out Milgram’s original flyer asking for participants (men specifically for the first study). It was posted by Sociological Images in August 2010.