Feature Article

Stop: Don't flip that electric switch

Chronicling the experience of Ed English — cameraman for Stanley Milgram's experiment.

By Ed English
A participant in the Milgram experiment.
'Experimenter' and 'subject' in Milgram's study of obedience and authority
As cameraman and editor for Stanley Milgram's original documentary “Obedience,” I have, over the years, come to believe that his experiment never attained the impact on society at large that it might have had. I suggest, in this personal comment, that it was too powerful to receive acceptance at a time when the authority of the government and military establishment were being challenged. The many comparisons of the study to the tragedy of the Holocaust overshadowed most applications of the study to the war in Vietnam. Sadly, the more sensational aspects of the study were emphasized, often out of context, except among an informed minority. My hope is that scholars will work to correct this for Milgram himself, the psychology profession and the good of society.

On Aug. 28, 2013, I was surprised to hear a review on National Public Radio by Leonard Lopate of Gina Perry's book on Stanley Milgram's “Obedience” experiment. Serendipitously, the author requested an interview with me the next day. She did extensive research for her book, and she was interested in speaking with me because I'm listed in the film credits of “Obedience,” a documentary record of the Milgram experiment.

The title of Perry's book “Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments” (2013) indicates how the publisher may be trying to capitalize on the sensationalism that has undermined Milgram's powerful experiment through the years. The psychology profession has frequently debated the controversial ethical aspects of the experiment, thereby not encouraging further research except for “Milgram lite,” 1 (Burger, 2009; Elms, 2009). Perry told me that she had studied Milgram in her early psychology courses and was intrigued, as many other students were, with the setup for the experiment.

In 1960, when I graduated from the free, public City College of New York, I was fortunate to land an assignment at the prestigious Yale University, to make Russian language training films for the U.S. Office of Education. The university also gave me the opportunity to work with Stanley Milgram. He explained that the experiment he was conducting may expose the inherent dangers in blindly obeying authority. Publically, two subjects were recruited for the experiment to investigate if electric shock given as punishment can improve learning. The “leader” of the experiment asked the two subjects to draw slips of paper to decide who will be the “learner” and who will be the “teacher.” The drawing was rigged so the newcomer was always the “teacher” and the actual “subject” of the experiment. The “learner” and the “leader” were both trained as confederates (acting according to Milgram's instructions). I understood the experiment was really designed to find out if, and how far the newcomer or “teacher/subject” was willing to follow orders from the “leader/actor” even when it seemed increasingly apparent that the “learner/actor” was experiencing pain. Predictions, prior to the actual experiment, even by psychiatrists, stated that only a pathological fringe of 1-2 percent would continue through to the maximum shock of 450 volts, (Milgram, 1973a). Astonishingly, the results of the experiment showed that almost half of the “teachers” across different experimental variations willingly inflicted electric shock punishment on the “learners” (Milgram, 1973a).

Filming the “subject” experience

Perry said she was greatly influenced by the 1975 CBS TV program, “The Tenth Level,” featuring William Shatner playing Stanley Milgram. The film opened dramatically with a camera shot of a train transporting Jews to the gas chamber. Much later when she began her research and diligently interviewed all the participants in Milgram's experiment, she learned how deeply the subjects felt the shame of being compared on national television to people who allowed the atrocities of the Holocaust because they claimed to be just obeying orders. This raised serious doubts for her about Milgram's experiment that she detailed in her book.

I told Perry I was very grateful to her for explaining the plight of the participants to me. I had not thought of this specifically before and am deeply sympathetic toward them. (I never saw the CBS TV version.) I still vividly remember many of the people she interviewed and I too have had troubling thoughts over the years, but from a decidedly different perspective.

Filming secretly over 50 years ago, behind a two-way mirror, I could not believe as I was zooming in on the faces of many of the “teachers,” that they could conceivably flip to the next higher voltage switch to shock the poor “learner.” Their actions continued even after escalating calls from the “learner” asking to stop, demanding to be let go, crying out in agony, pleadings because of a heart condition, to ultimately nonresponsiveness. At this point only the sound of the switch being clicked at 450 volts was heard. And all this merely because of routine-sounding prompts to continue by a man in an off-white lab coat with a clip board who sat nonchalantly behind the “teachers.”

This took place after I had filmed the “teachers” undergoing a slight shock themselves to feel what would be given to the “learner.” Each “teacher” was asked to sit in an old-fashioned, wooden chair with flat arm supports. Some special electrode paste was applied to the arm that was to be shocked. It was explained that the paste would help to avoid blisters and burns. A mild shock was given and each subject said they definitely felt it. The leader told them it was only 45 volts. Casually, the “teachers” were given a paper towel to wipe their forearm and then led into an adjacent room in order to administer the test objectively apart from the “learner” who had been left strapped into what resembled an electric chair.

The door between them was closed and the “teacher” was seated at a table in front of a very large, imposing, highly scientific looking electric shock machine. Watching unnoticed behind the two-way mirror, I thought, how could anyone who had just received a mild electric shock not question or at least express some doubt about administering shocks from a machine labeled “Shock Generator” with switches running incrementally from 15 to 450 volts and with corresponding descriptors starting with “Slight Shock” and progressing to “Intense Shock,” “Extreme Intensity Shock,” “Danger Severe Shock” and the “XXX” at the highest range? Nonetheless, everyone during the filming proceeded as they were instructed.

Even though I had been told that no one was actually going to be progressively shocked and that this was essential for the bona fide scientific experiment, I felt queasy about filming. A few years earlier in a college course, I had studied the role of the cameraman in intense situations like riots and war, and I had made a documentary inside the violent prison at Riker's Island, New York, so I continued filming the subjects in the experiment.

I also remembered, as a very young student in parochial school, how ineffective it was being struck by a teacher with a ruler across my hand, and how it made me suspicious of teachers who did it. So, in a strange way I was curious about how these “teachers” would administer punishment during Milgram's experiment.

The implication of war with Milgram's experiment

I told Perry — who was a journalist, psychology researcher and Australian citizen and was most likely young at the time of the Milgram experiment — how American college students felt in the 1960's. What was uppermost on every young man's mind was his draft status with the Selective Service System. (Milgram had joined the Air Force ROTC in 1951 at Queens College and served his time [Blass, 2004].)

We all knew that if Elvis Presley — the King — could be drafted away a few years earlier from millions of his adoring fans to serve in the military, what chance did anyone of us have as the path to war in Vietnam seemed to be inexorably heating up? I told her that, like other recent college graduates, I had a deferment from the military to work on a government contract, and so I was at Yale available to work on Milgram's experiment.

Perry told me about one of the subjects in her book, who participated in the early experiments. Herb Weiner, who quit before finishing because of the intense pressure he felt upon being prompted to administer the shocks even after the “learner” expressed pain. After the experiment, Weiner bitterly complained to Milgram about his own reaction and voiced his ethical concerns. He was proud of that, and rightly so, but being a member of the Yale faculty, Weiner could easily disobey because he had the higher authority of the institution on his side. He was an assistant professor at Yale when he entered the experiment. Perry said she wasn't sure if Weiner mentioned this when he signed up. Most subjects chosen for the experiment were just ordinary Americans from diverse backgrounds unaffiliated with the university. It proved to be far more difficult for these individuals to disobey authority on their own, which was exactly the purpose of the experiment (Milgram, 1973a).

More pointedly, could the short, unemotional prompts spoken to Weiner prod him to continue the experiment by the “leader/actor” in a lab coat with a clipboard sitting behind him, be as threatening as a uniformed SS officer barking orders backed by the Third Reich? Yet, this comparison between the pre-Vietnam War Americans and the World War II Germans was very commonly drawn with the Milgram experiment. Obviously, this comparison was, I believe, to be highly offensive to Americans.

Clearly, with Stanley Milgram's background, this was implausible. His parents were Jews who left Eastern Europe before the Holocaust. His father still had relatives there during the war, so they were acutely aware of the evils of the Nazis (Blass, 2004). He was not trying to make the case to restore the reputation of the “good” Germans. 

Neither was Milgram directly implicating Vietnam War era Americans. Yet, the results of the experiment were overshadowed by the comparison to the Holocaust almost from the beginning. Some of this may be due to the notoriety of the trial of Adolph Eichmann, which had begun with much publicity shortly before the Milgram experiment. On the one hand, Milgram's studies were influenced by the bedrock of irrefutable evidence on the Holocaust in European culture. On the other hand, should Americans have introspectively linked themselves to these horrendous events? Hadn't many of the “greatest generation” fought and died to defeat Hitler and win the Second World War? Milgram's studies might have been received better if he had deemed them applicable to the authority of the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned about in his farewell address in 1961. However, that connection was overlooked in his book “Obedience to Authority” published in 1974, in which Eichmann is referred to at least seven times.

In the early 1960s, some of us naively thought the Milgram experiment might be used as a rationale to stay out of the draft. I thought of being a conscientious objector, but realized that such a sudden shift would not be consistent with my history. I joined the Universal Life Church and paid for a card and certificate that said I was a religious minister, but that attempt to avoid the draft would have certainly been obvious to my draft board. I asked to join the Peace Corps, but was told I might be drafted afterwards anyway. I would not lie to dodge the draft, and even though I felt we were making a terrible mistake in Vietnam, I wanted to serve my country in some way, so I enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserves. There was a real sense of desperation everywhere among young people and even some parents. The whole country seemed to be falling apart, and “revolution” was shouted out as if it were a real possibility. The draft had burrowed into our collective gut; the Eichmann trial was only, rarely, a very small part of a specific conversation.

Conclusion

Milgram's experiment could have been used to help power the anti-Vietnam War movement. Had he directly confronted the war establishment, and received support outside the psychology profession, his work might not have been subjected to the endless rounds of discussions by the profession over ethical and methodological concerns (Elms, 2009).

Thinking back over all the enormous amount of criticism Milgram got for his experiment, he might have spared himself a lot of grief if he had just stopped the experiment as soon as the door closed on the “learner” and the ”teacher/subjects” agreed to the casual prompt by the “leader” to administer the first shock. At that instant, it was obvious to me behind the two-way mirror that when the “teachers” took their seat right in front of the imposing shock machine, that they were willing to ignore any cautions of good conscience they might have had to obey the flimsiest of authority under a barely credible scientific rationale.

With the tumult of the civil rights and early, anti-war protests still rumbling in my mind, when the door shut and the first switch was about to be activated, I can distressingly remember squelching my own inner commands to run into the room and shout, “Stop, don't flip that electric switch!” Had I done this, however, and the experiment was halted just before the first switch, most of the same professionals clamoring that he went too far, would probably have scoffed at those results and Milgram's experiment would not have been so significant.

But what has made the most sense for me over all the years is remembering, from the time of the filming, how compassionately Stanley Milgram would debrief the subjects after the experiment. If he could respect these people who had spontaneously revealed, on film, after varying protestations, such an unambiguous obedience to, at best, a perfunctory and questionable, minor authority, surely, Stanley Milgram was committed to probing the darker side of our nature for the benefit of all of us.

We do not want to believe that our authorities are out to control us and Milgram doesn't blame our authorities either. His experiment delineates in numerous variations, that it is our complicity with authority that is the crux of the problem. People are relieved, in trying situations, when someone in authority takes responsibility for their actions (Milgram, 1973b).

Many of the subjects in the Milgram experiment, Perry told me, have had a difficult time trying to understand what they went through and what it meant. Personally, I have lasting memories, but always with the understanding that the experiment I was participating in was of valid scientific concern. This has only deepened over the years, even as the psychology profession has continued to flounder with how to further build on his results. Perry said her opinion of Milgram deteriorated after she spoke with many of the participants in the experiments as they recounted the emotional stress they had endured. It would be a very sad irony if her book “Behind the Shock Machine” confirmed their worries and they believed that their participation was for naught.

In 1984, at Stanley Milgram's funeral, his colleague, Irwin Katz, reflected on the obedience experiment, “After two decades of critical scrutiny and discussion, there remains one of the most singular, most penetrating, and most disturbing inquiries into human conduct that modern psychology has produced in this century. Those of us who presume to have knowledge of man are still perplexed by his findings, with their frightful implications for society” (Blass, 2000, p. 136).

Historical note

Making 16 mm documentaries in the 1960s meant that directors and producers often were their own cameramen and editors because of the physical, hands-on technology. (Purists like Frederic Wiseman have only recently switched to digital.) Stanley didn't really shoot or edit himself; consequently “Obedience” is a classic well-constructed, powerful documentary without any special effects. This editing style reflected the scientific rigor Stanley strove for at Yale. At the very end of the later version reedited, narrated and distributed by Pennsylvania State University, there is an artistic visual and narration sequence that steps outside the strict documentary form and points the finger at “governments.” Milgram did not receive adequate additional funding for future obedience experiments and ever the brilliant scientist, he moved on (Blass, 2011).

References

Blass, T. (2000). Obedience to authority: Current perspectives on the Milgram paradigm. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Blass, T. (2004). The man who shocked the world. New York: Basic Books.

Blass, T. (2011, August 31). The obedience experiment at 50 . Observations , Association for Psychological Science. Retrieved from http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/publications/observer/obsonline/the-obedience-experiments-at-50.html

Burger, J. M. (2009). Replicating Milgram: Would people still obey today? American Psychologist, 64 , 1-11.

Elms, A. C. (2009). Obedience lite. American Psychologist, 64(1), 32-36, DOI:10.1037/a0014473

Lopate, L. (Host), & Perry, G. (Writer). (2013, August 28). Taking a closer look at Milgram's shocking obedience study [Audio file]. All Things Considered. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2013/08/28/209559002/taking-a-closer-look-at-milgrams-shocking-obedience-study

Milgram, S. (1973a). Obedience to authority. New York: Harper & Row.

Milgram, S. (1973b, December). The perils of obedience. Harper's Magazine. Retrieved from http://harpers.org/archive/1973/12/the-perils-of-obedience/

Perry, G. (2013). Behind the shock machine: The untold story of the notorious Milgram psychology experiments. New York: New Press.


1 “Milgram lite” is a term coined by Alan C. Elm to describe the tasks executed by participants in replicated studies of Milgram's experiment to be less nocuous. Compared to the higher degree of shock levels administered in Milgram's experiment, the tasks in these subsequent studies had to comply with institutional review boards ensuring participants were not subjected to possible stress or trauma.