In 1963,[1] Stanley Milgram showed that 65% of us are capable of administering a fatal electric shock to another human being. For this, we require only a white coat, a clipboard and a few repetitions of the phrase, “please continue with the experiment.”[2] We all hope we are in the 35% who say no. In the years following his experiment, Milgram paid dearly for his insight. Unable to secure funding or tenure, even his peers failed to engage with his work.[3] Only in 2005 was it picked up again, this time to be developed as a reality TV show in which Janice and I were participants.[4] I administered the fatal electric shock as instructed and heard the screams of its recipient. I’m still trying to figure out why.

The TV centaurproduction company paid for counselling, but once the four sessions stipulated by the contract were over, I was left to sit on my bed and ruminate. I could not sleep, nor eat. I had consciously, gullibly, behaved in the most monstrous of ways; and done so in public. Preoccupied by notions of digging a large hole into which I might climb, I watched the news and read my paper in a different way. Now I saw that the world was full of us: the dangerously obedient, the 65 percenters. We included wartime collaborators, wayward soldiers, corrupt government officers, over-zealous managers and officious bureaucrats. All have succumbed, either to authority, or to the pressure exerted by their peers, and so acted badly. All can be relied upon not to question, and to go along with the crowd. All have shown a kind of moral blindness; or at least, have been revealed as holding their morality too lightly, so that it is easily breached by events. The experiment confirmed that I was not the person I had hoped. I had, on camera, been caught in possession of a dangerous tendency to believe. From that day on, I was suspicious of myself. I was not to be trusted. What had looked like the right thing to do was no such thing.

I was off sick for two weeks. Yet upon my return to work, it got worse. As a warehouse manager, I must direct the loading of lorries. When confronted with even the most minor of decisions, however, I hesitated. In the experiment, I had, unknowingly, acted badly. Now I was unsure of how to act at all. When some of the lads teased a new driver, I had a panic attack and had to run outside. The next day I lost my temper with my line manager simply for doing his job. I was fired.

Perhaps you have never dallied in the far recesses of the mind, and have no interest in imagining the worst. For myself, I have often wondered what would happen if I just stopped. To stay in bed, like Oblomov,[5] not to eat or answer the phone or in any way bother with the normal activities of an individual. How long before someone comes into the room? I went five days before my sister used her key, stormed in and threw open the curtains. I was to stop being self-indulgent, get out there and do something.

And so, a month after the experiment, I resolved never again to unknowingly do another’s bidding. This meant I could not join any group, organisation or institution, for in every case; I might start to again conform and, unwittingly, obey. I also embarked on the study of social science; this in order to explain. But I am no ordinary scholar. I am a Centaur: part human, part any group I might venture near.

Why did I obey? I can offer three reasons. The first concerns the assumptions I made about the experiment, which of course turned out to be false. The second is more damning still, for it suggests I sought, above all, to conform, and to do so out of fear. The third is that some process was taking place between myself and the experimenters, something out of sight that I unwittingly picked up and, like a fool, showed in plain sight. I here take each in turn.

Regarding assumptions, I can only say that I did indeed assume the expertise of what I took to be doctors, wielding their clipboards and wearing their white coats, as they were.[6] So too did I assume the institutions for which they worked, here a university and a television production company, were legitimate.[7] In fact, the ‘doctors’ were students, or people trying to make some easy cash, like myself. And the ‘university’ turned out not to exist at all. The question then became one of whether I have some particular tendency to believe in, and be persuaded by, the symbols of status. If, as some research suggests, we each have a measurable preference for obedience and hierarchy, then I would likely score high on the ‘authoritarian’ scale.[8] I would thus have a high Social Dominance order,[9] and a marked tendency to kneel down. All of which strongly suggests I should no longer make such assumptions, and should, instead, question the legitimacy of every official of every organisation I came anywhere near.

The second reason is again located in myself and so constitutes a further failure of character. I may as well just say it: I sought to avoid conflict. Above all, I was afraid, so that when they told me to keep going, I did. It may also be that I am habituated to obey.[10] Certainly, in the experiment, I expected to do their bidding and understood I was being paid to do so. Yet the others, the 35 percenters, of which, I should say, Janice was one, had somehow risen above such conditioning to confront the experimenters themselves. They had a moral floor, as it were, below which they would not go. I had no such floor, and instead swung unsteadily above an abyss.

Recent research on moral judgment suggests that where something appears to us to be of moral import, such as the suffering of a loved one, we weigh up our actions in moral terms. What should we do? What is the ‘right’ thing to do? What sort of person am I? It has thus been argued that serious failures of moral behaviour, such as shown by the likes of Eichmann, Dahlmer or Karadic, involve incorrect moral reasoning. But it would be more accurate to describe this as a cognitive error, one that results in a palpable failure to perceive. Vetlesen shows that the perception of another’s suffering is a precondition for moral judgment.[11] Without the emotional response of empathy, the suffering of another never appears as an object of moral import, and consequently, never gets reasoned about at all. Eichmann’s moral failure was not, therefore, bad judgment, qua bad thinking. It was due, rather, to a complete absence of judgment.[12] In this case, the suffering of the other is cognitively filtered out before any moral questions arise, and the other is dehumanised.

When we watch the rapist, the child molester or the ethnic cleanser discussing his crime, we observe the same inability to see the suffering he causes. Lacking empathy, which in moral judgment provides perceptual access to the suffering of others, the pedophile exhibits the bounded confines of his visible world. And because we see more than he, because we can see the child’s suffering, we say that his is a false consciousness, that his identity is impoverished, perhaps brutalised by trauma and twisted by mechanisms of defense. In this way, the one who does not see is the exemplar of bad judgment. The quality of our moral judgment is much improved when we overcome such cognitive distortions and gain perceptual access to the suffering of others. In my case, I heard the screams, but I simply did not see.

The third reason is all I have in mitigation. Somehow, I was acting out a process, here occurring between the experimenters and myself, which I did not understand or even recognise. There was something outside myself, something in common: social, collective, cultural; something that visited itself upon me, and which I then let deep into my very being. I took on a role.[13] Or, perhaps I can say, it took me. In the end, it is this that sits within me; like a grain of sand in soft flesh.

It was the German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey who distinguished the natural from the social world.[14] Interested in the kind of knowledge appropriate to each, he saw one as material and the other as symbolic. In the case of the natural world, one could have scientific knowledge that was true or false. Of the social world, however, an altogether different type of knowledge was required. This entailed the understanding and interpretation of symbols. It required a different engagement with the object, one that resisted scientific explanation.

Subsequently, the phenomenologist Martin Heidegger took Dilthey’s social and symbolic world and showed how it felt real to its participants, how it is, at once, both made and discovered by them.[15] The social world in which we live is a social construction, one that appears, to us, to be real.[16] It is authored by us, but also acts back upon us. And this is what happened to me. I entered a fake world and assumed it was real. That’s what makes institutions. I then acted out what was required of me by that (fake) institution, and in so doing, played the fool.

When we become absorbed into the culture of an organisation, part of ourselves becomes engaged in acting for that organisation; we cede a part of ourselves to another. We then do things we cannot, afterwards, explain. Marx said, that when it came to the social world, we had a ‘Religious Reflex,’ a dangerous and recurrent tendency to believe.

I have often thought that England was particularly lucky, in the Second World War, to have avoided the moral compromises required by occupation. My Dutch friends somewhere carry the burden of their country’s history under the Gestapo, and the French struggled mightily to remove the stain of collaboration. I have no doubt whatsoever that the English would have found it every bit as difficult as their unfortunate neighbours, had they been similarly forced to adapt their behaviour to a vengeful authority. Indeed, as Milgram showed, only the 35 percenters would have resisted.

For her part, Janice had sat down and looked over the row of switches before her. “Ask the question,” the doctor had said. “If they make a mistake, throw the first switch. For each subsequent mistake, do the second, then the third. Is that clear?”

She nodded, and rather self-consciously started asking the questions. The first mistakes, and their attendant electric shocks, occasioned surprise from the recipient; here positioned in a nearby room and audible over the tannoy. She gave a start. Should she continue? But the doctors said to do so, and she did.

The next shock clearly caused pain. She wheeled around to confront the doctors. How could they make her do such a thing! But still they repeated that the experiment should continue.

When the next shock brought an outright cry, she stood up, soundly abused the doctor and strode out with aplomb. I thanked her for her humanity. If I was to start all over again, I might begin by calling her.

* * * * * * * * * * *

[1] S. Milgram, The Obedience to Authority, Jerome Bruner, 2005.

[2] The experiment had subjects asking questions of another, situated in the next room and audible on loudspeaker. They were to punish failure with increasingly powerful electric shocks. Those receiving the shocks were in fact actors.

[3] Thomas Blass, The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram, New York: Basic Books, 2004.

[4] See, re a similar show, Reicher, S, Haslam, S.A. “Rethinking the Psychology of Tyranny: The BBC Prison Study, The British Journal of Social Psychology, 2006, 45: 1-40.

[5] Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1954 [originally 1858].

[6] Frames, Social Representations, Schema

[7] Tyler, T.R. (2001). “A Psychological Perspective on the Legitimacy of Institutions and Authorities,” in Jost, J.T., Major, B. (eds.), The Psychology of Legitimacy: Emerging Perspectives on Ideology, Justice, and Intergroup Relations, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 416-436.

[8] Adorno, T.W., The Authoritarian Personality, New York: Harper & Row, 1950; Feldman, S., “Enforcing Social Conformity: A Theory of Authoritarianism,” Political Psychology, 2003, 24/1: 41-74.

[9] Sidanius, J., Pratto. F., Social Dominance: An Intergroup Theory of Social Hierarchy and Oppression, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

[10] Seligman, M.E.P., Helplessness: On Depression, Development, and Death, San Francisco: Freeman & Co., 1977.

[11] Vetlesen, A.J., Perception, Empathy, and Judgment: An Inquiry into the Preconditions of Moral Performance, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994.

[12] Arendt, H., Eichmann in Jerusalem, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964.

[13] Role theory

[14] Wilhelm Dilthey, 1833-1911, Selected Works, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[15] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, Oxford: Blackwell, 1958. [1927]

[16] Classically, by a process of ‘reification’, for which, see Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, London: Merlin Press, 1971. [1920]

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