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Milgram Goes Modern: The Milgram Experiments Revisited

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Slightly more than fifty years ago, in August 1961 to be precise, a social psychologist named Stanley Milgram carried out an experiment that was to change our understanding of the human propensity for evil for ever. Now I am a non religious person and I do not use words like “evil” casually. What I am talking about is the kind of evil inflicted by the likes of Adolf Hitler, “Uncle” Joe Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Pol Pot, Idi Amin and so many other leaders of nations on their own people and by so many leaders of religious cults from the notorious kool aid man to the con artists who prey on the vulnerable in society. None of these were trying to repeat the Milgram experiment, they were all very different and were applying their warped solutions to diverse situations none thought of themselves as evil but all had one thing in common: to do what they did they needed willing followers. One of the things that annoys me about modern society and the noisy and illiberal “liberals” who wield far more influence than the number of people they represent entitles them too is the way that when a government scam, a scientific fraud of a rip off by bankers and financiers is being talked about, these people, these lovers of

democracy and free speech as they like to style themselves, will try to suppress intelligent debate by yelling “Conspiracy Theory” in the way that ignorant, superstitious medieval peasants would yell “witch” at anybody whose behaviour made them fearful. These gullible people believe that the government is their friend, scientists are so clever we dare not question them. Such sheep like behaviour, such emotional neediness that can only be assuaged by the secure, warm feeling of being one of the great anonymous mass has been misrepresented as “The wisdom of the crowd.” Why do you think the west has made the enormous error of making our businesses and government functions dependent on one software package (Don’t call Windows an operating system, it isn’t) that has always been, in commercial terms “Not fit for purpose”? And why have we used that package as a platform to build a communications network that is likewise “not fit for purpose”, that provides no security for our personal and financial data. “What about ‘https’ sockets? you might well ask. Hogwash, the data was never insecure at that point. Enough however, this is not a technology article. The reason we have made these mistakes is The Wisdom Of Crowds or the Sheeple Factor as freethinkers know it. When I was making my reputation as a consultant who could provide solutions that worked, on time and under budget a management maxim often encountered in the Information Technology was “Nobody was ever sacked for buying from IBM.” I and most of my colleagues in our small but very successful consultancy firm would reply, “No but a lot of people should have been.” The IBM solution was seldom the best in terms of value for money or technical efficiency but it was safe. And far more people than you imagine will always choose the illusion of safety over the thrill of the adventurous course. The wisdom of crowds? The comfort of the flock or herd? Modern manifestations of the behaviour patters Milgram's experiments identified make his work seem scarier now than it must have to people reading of it 50 years ago. Selected participants were invited were invited to a laboratory at Yale University supposedly to be part of a study looking at the effects of punishment on memory.

Those who were required to assume the role of the “teacher” were then told they would have to administer an electric shock to a “learner” every time that person made a mistake. The shocks started at 15 volts but increased in 15-volt increments every time an error was made, going right up to 450 volts – enough to kill someone according to the documentation. Actually it’s amps that kill not volts but Milgram was a social scientist so we should excuse him for not knowing.

A laboratory at Yale University

In reality the experiment was a hoax, the learner was an actor, and the electric shocks weren’t real. What Milgram had really intended to investigate was how willing ordinary people were to follow instructions. Would they stop at 150 volts, the point at which the learner started to show signs of distress and demanded to be let out because his heart was starting to bother him. Would they go to 300 volts the point they had been told serious injury would occur and at which where the learner let out an agonised scream and then stopped answering? Would they go all the way to the Max and administer a shock they believed was strong enough to kill. How far would they go? Members of Milgram’s team suggested people would go no further than about 100 volts – certainly not far enough to cause real harm, the (fake) distress their victim showed would cause instincts like compassion to kick in. The collective opinion was that only a 1% would go push it all the way up to 450 volts. Surely they reasoned, only a sadist or psychopath, somebody who gained as visceral pleasure from hurting others or one totally detached from the feelings of fellow creatures would go far

enough to kill. Every student who has studied psychology to A-level or Baccalaureate standard knows, two-thirds of Milgram’s participants continued administering shocks up to the potentially fatal level. And you thought it was only Nazi concentration camp guards who would rely on “I vass only followink orders” as an excuse? How charmingly naive. Milgram’s experiment proved that even normal, “decent” people can put aside moral values to engage in acts of extreme cruelty when instructed to do so by others who they believe to be in authority. This idea is entirely consistent with Hannah Arendt’s theory of the “banality of evil”, developed from her observations of the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann which concluded in the same month as Milgram’s experiment. Arendt perceived Eichmann as a bland office worker, a bureaucrat rather than a monster, someone more concerned with the importance of following bureaucratic procedures than questioning the end end result of following a process to the letter. The empirical contribution of the Milgram experiment is as relevant today as it was so much closer in time to the horrors of Nazi Germany. The conclusion that ordinary, decent people will willingly participate in evil acts has recently been challenged by historians and psychologists. Their attempts to unravel the thread of reasoning leading to the conclusion that evil is banal lead us to even more disturbing insights into the dark abyss hidden in the depths of the human psyche. Research shows these proverbial decent people, in reality just ordinary people like you and me, will participate in horrific acts not because they are passive, mindless functionaries who never question what they are doing or consider the possible consequences, but rather because they come to believe – typically under the influence of those in authority – that what they are doing is right. David Cesarani’s 2004 biography of Adolf Eichmann, for example, reveals he was not just a pen-pusher, but an enthusiastic National Socialist keen to play his part in delivering “the final solution” to “the Jewish problem”. There were however many small, anonymous cogs in the wheel of Hitler’s authoritarian central government

machine, from the concentration camp guards who stood up at their Nuremberg and actually did say, “I was following orders” to those referred to in Pastor Martin Niemoller’s poem who simply “did not speak out.” The true horror is not that they were blind to the evil they were perpetrating, but they knew full well what they were doing, and believed it to be right. In these terms the results of Milgram’s experiments are still relevant, not because they provide a perspective on to the “banality of evil”, but because they provide insights into the conditions under which not just evil but control freakery and manipulative management of information can appear banal. Consider the
They were only following orders.

power wielded by the mighty advertising

industry today. Consider how, in spite of the fact that we are all aware of the security problems of the internet, so many are persuaded to move their business and much of their social activities to an online environment. The biggest question they throw up however is why participants in Milgram’s original exercise and in more recent studies are willing to throw in their lot with authority when surely nobody can be unaware that the track record of government, corporate management, the security services and the mainstream churches in dealing with the general population is so very bad. Why are people so eager to believe the government is their friend or Apple Corp really have their best interests at heart when selling very ordinary but vastly hyped gadgets for far more than equivalent devices from competitors. I mention Apple not because they are any worse than others but because of the cultish nature of their following, a situation it must be said that is not of Apple’s making. Why are people willing to follow a Hitler or a David Koresh down the destructive path he points the way along. And what happened in the USA during the 2008 Presidential election campaign when one candidate, Barack Obama, a professional community organiser with a very

dubious record in lower levels of politics, a vacuous portfolio of policies and a secretive attitude about his family and educational backgrounds that would have disqualified him from a job as a graduate entrant to civil service job was, thanks to a massively expensive and grossly manipulative media campaign accorded quasidivine status and swept to power on a wave of hysteria. To those who viewd him objectively the failure of Obama’s Presidency is no surprise, the people who supported him so fanatically they were even in the habit of accusing anybody who questioned Obama’s ability of being motivated by racism are now trying to blame those who did question and oppose him for his failure.. The same questions as we ask about outbreaks of genocidal war in Africa, the wilder parts of South East Asia and the middle east are germane to outbreaks of mass hysteria we see around us in the developed nations. The rioting witnessed in London during August 2011, the abuse of detainees in Abu Ghraib, genocide in Darfur or Rwanda the persecution of Christians in the quasi – autonomous Indonesian island of Timor, or even the mob like behaviour of climate science supporters when challenged by people sceptical of their transparently fraudulent statistics are cases in point. In all these episodes, people have chosen a cause to support and proved willing to put aside normal restraints and courtesy in pursuit of efforts to impose their view on people who do not share it, not because they were blindly obeying orders but because they were working creatively towards the goals of a leadership with which they identified. They were sheeple, they feared being seen as standing out from the crowd. Such people would willingly believe in The Emperor’s New Clothes of the fairytale than trust their own judgement and common sense, so great is their desperation to conform. In all these cases there is a failure to recognise the nature of the thought processes and instincts at work. They involve not just the passive obedience of the person who is “only following orders” but also a dynamic will to unquestioningly follow a leader, to be part of a movement, to belong and to say, “Look at me, I’m one of you, I accept that the mindless stupidity of the mob a.k.a. the wisdom of crowds is always superior to the intelligence of the individual.

The king is in the alltogether, he's alltogether as naked as the day that he was born.

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