I’m not the Nazi; YOU’RE the Nazi!

In July of 1961, Yale Univeristy psychologist Stanley Milgram began a fascinating experiment to see if ordinary Americans could be induced to torture their fellow citizens…which sounds a bit twisted; context – as always – is important. Just a few months earlier, on April 11, 1961, humanity’s eyes were glued to a new piece of technology known as “the television” to watch an unprecedented event (on many levels) in human history: the live broadcast of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the leading architects of the Nazi’s “Final Solution,” the attempt to wipe-out the entire Jewish population of Europe. Eichmann’s trial re-surfaced a deep moral quandary that we still struggle to understand today: how in the hell did the entire population of seemingly ‘normal’ German citizens allow this to happen? Given the cultural proximity of Germans to Americans, this was no mere academic question. Sitting in the front row at the trial was Hannah Arendt, a Jewish writer who had escaped both Nazi Germany (in 1933, having been once arrested by the gestapo) and occupied France (in 1940), before finally making it to the United States. Arendt had already published two books, but her classic – “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil” in 1963 – is what she is most remembered for. (I’ll return to Arendt later).

A big part of the difficulty in all of the Nazi War Crimes Tribunals was how to assign legal blame for the acts committed – and supported by – an entire nation-state. The original indictments against 24 individuals and 7 organizations were filed on Oct. 18, 1945, and the trial opened on November 20, 1945. The later trials, including the Nazi Doctor trials, took place between 1946 and 1949, all in Nuremberg pursuant to the authority of the International Military Tribunal.

Stanley Milgram wanted to design an experiment that would show – he hypothesized – that Americans weren’t like that. His initial experiment would use “average” Americans from New Haven, Connecticut, followed by an identical trial with Germans to show, presumably, that they were like that… His entire thesis being that there was something about the German character or culture that could and would produce Nazis. This was a matter of significant academic, and even everyday, discussion. It was, after all, less than 15 years since the end of that global conflict. Many Nazi scientists had been given refuge and other leaders of that regime – like Eichmann – had fled to South America. Eichmann’s luck would not hold and the Mossad would hunt him down and snatch him from Argentina to stand trial back in Israel for his part in the attempted destruction of the Jewish people.

Surprise! Not really about memory! Really about disposition to torture!

Original advertisement for the Milgram study – $4/hr(!)… more than minimum wage at the time.

Milgram’s design was ingenious, although later criticisms have argued it was unethical because of the stress and discomfort it placed on the “teachers” who were issuing the “shocks.” (I address some of the other criticisms of Milgram’s experiment methodology below.) As the image above shows, Milgram advertised for volunteers for a study about memory, although that was a subterfuge for the real experiment. Here’s how it worked: the study volunteers would show up and draw lots to see who would be the “teacher” and who would be the “learner.” A researcher, wearing a lab coat, would then take the two participants to the room where the “memory” experiment was to occur. One of the participants, the “teacher” did not know that the other participant – the “learner” – was a fake, an actor who was in on the sham. The draw was fixed and the “learner” was always “Mr. Wallace” – the actor pretending to be a volunteer who was sent to another room.

stanley milgram generator scale

The learner had electrodes attached to his arms, while the teacher and researcher went into a room next door that contained an electric shock generator and a row of switches marked from 15 volts (Slight Shock) to 375 volts (Danger: Severe Shock) to 450 volts (!!!). See where it’s going yet?

Every time the “learner” missed a word pair – most of the time, by design – the “teacher” was told by the man in the lab coat to administer an electric shock to the “learner” – in order to help him learn.

Milgram Obedience IV Variations Whenever the teacher refused to administer a shock, the experimenter had a series of orders/prods to ensure they continued. There were four prods and if one was not obeyed, then the experimenter (Mr. Williams) read out the next prod, and so on.

Prod 1: Please continue; Prod 2: The experiment requires you to continue; Prod 3: It is absolutely essential that you continue;  Prod 4: You have no other choice but to continue.

One other point about the setup: the teacher couldn’t actually see the learner, but pre-recorded cries were played in response to the (fake) shocks that the teacher believed they were administering to the learner.

The study results created a bit of a furor when they were published: every single subject [FN 1] went to 300 voltz – 100% were willing to zap some poor schlub at dangerous level with some prompting in order to help him with his memory… 65% would go to the lethal setting – 450v. Milgram performed the experiment 18 different times, changing the initial conditions to see what effect it had on subsequent obedience. The various conditions that would lower or raise the compliance rate led to Milgram’s Agency Theory (1974). In January 1973, Milgram published the book “Obedience to Authority.” He adapted a much shorter version for Harper’s in December of the same year, called “The Perils of Obedience.” [FN 2] It is absolutely worth the read to see what conditions changed compliance – and how that influenced Milgram’s theories on people’s deference to even obviously illegitimate authority.

FN 1 – All of the original subjects were male. This has been one of the grounds for criticism of Milgram’s study. I understand the potential validity of such a criticism, but I’m not sure that it really is valid. Even if the phenomenon Milgram observed was purely limited to the male of the species, the results are undoubtedly still of profound moral and psychological interest.

FN 2 – Yes, he really wrote an article with that title. Can you even *imagine* anything with that title today?

Criticisms of the Study

There have been reams of criticism written about Milgram’s shock experiments. They run the gamut from colleagues and behavioralists who objected to virtually every aspect of the study, from the fake advertisement to the fixed lottery draw, from the co-conspirator/actor to the manufactured grunts and screams, right down to accusations of inadequate debrief and untold stress placed on the innocent “teachers.” The criticisms vary from reasonable and legitimate to nonsensical, histrionic, and irrelevant. Getting bogged down in this argument is rather an aside from this article, so let me point to what I believe is a relatively even-handed piece discussing Milgram’s experiment and its aftermath. The most important part of that article, however, is this:

In 2009, researchers conducted a study designed to replicate Milgram’s classic obedience experiment. In an article published in the APS Observer, psychologist Jerry Burger of Santa Clara University and author of the study described how relevant Milgram’s study is today:

“The haunting black-and-white images of ordinary citizens delivering what appear to be dangerous, if not deadly, electric shocks and the implications of the findings for atrocities like the Holocaust and Abu Ghraib are not easily dismissed. Yet because Milgram’s procedures are clearly out-of-bounds by today’s ethical standards, many questions about the research have gone unanswered. Chief among these is one that inevitably surfaces when I present Milgram’s findings to students: Would people still act that way today?”

Burger made several alterations to Milgram’s experiment.

The maximum shock level was 150-volts as opposed to the original 450-volts.
Participants were also carefully screened to eliminate those who might experience adverse reactions to the experiment.

The results of the new experiment revealed that participants obeyed at roughly the same rate that they did when Milgram conducted his original study more than 40 years ago.

Id., (emphasis added). Here is Burger’s own short article on this.

Notwithstanding all of the sturm und drang about Stanley Milgram and his methodologies, when the experiment was conducted even with the new pillows and guardrails to ensure it was completely on the up and up, participants obeyed at roughly the same rate. Huh. You don’t say. As far as I’m concerned, none of this is really news to anyone who’s spent some time seriously studying history, observing human behavior, and/or made it to middle age. In fact, it’s all an aside to what is at the heart of the problem. 

The Real Problem – the banality ubiquity of evil

The real problem isn’t that Milgram discovered/demonstrated that a big chunk of human beings, about 3 out of 5 or maybe even 2 out of 3, people will blindly follow the instructions of some stranger to harm another stranger, as long as stranger #1 is wearing a lab coat and has “apparent authority” to do so. Indeed, if you really want a master class in psychology on how ordinary high school students can be turned into killers, PBS covered this already in a brilliant 1983 documentary called “Anybody’s Son Will Do.”

…there are on average about 20 wars going on in the world at any given time and they are all waged by men who learn to be soldiers away from the battlefield. All soldiers belong to the same profession and it makes them different from everybody else. They have to be different… for their job is ultimately about killing and dying; and that job doesn’t come naturally to any human being. Yet all soldiers are born civilians; the method for turning young men into soldiers – people who kill other people – is basic training. It’s essentially the same all over the world and it always has been because young men everywhere are pretty much alike. 

There may be points to pick at in such broad generalizations, but I feel confident that the narrator’s point would hold true for at least 3 out of 5, or 2 out of 3, young men. None of this is the problem, however.

The real problem that gets missed is what Stanley Milgram noted in the very beginning of his experiment, before he had ever fooled a single volunteer with actors and fake shocks. The most important takeaway from Milgram’s experiment was the survey he did of Yale seniors to whom he explained the entire project beforehand.

Before giving an account of the experimental results, it is instructive to consider how persons predict others will perform when commanded to administer powerful shocks to another person. Fourteen Yale seniors, all psychology majors, were provided with a detailed description of the experimental situation. They were asked to reflect carefully on it, and to predict the behavior of 100 hypothetical subjects. More specifically, they were instructed to plot the distribution of obedience of “100 Americans of diverse occupations, and ranging in age from 20 to 50 years,” who were placed in the experimental situation.

There was considerable agreement among the respondents on the expected behavior of hypothetical subjects. All respondents predicted that only an insignificant minority would go through to the end of the shock series. (The estimates ranged from 0 to 3%; i.e., the most “pessimistic” member of the class predicted that of 100 persons, 3 would continue through to the most potent shock available on the shock generator–450 volts.) The class mean was 1.2%. The question was also posed informally to colleagues of the author, and the most general feeling was that few if any subjects would go beyond the designation Very Strong Shock.

(Emphasis my own). Stanley Milgram, “Behavioral Study of Obedience,” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371–378. 

The most terrifying aspect of the experiment is not the percentage of people willing to shock others to death; the most terrifying aspect is that no one – not a single person among all of the “higher educated”, super-dee-duper smahht folks at Yale, either the students – or as Milgram notes, his colleagues – were anywhere close to estimating the real number. Ruminate on that for a moment and then consider how many of our government officials, senior bureaucrats, lawyers, etc., have been educated at Yale. I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that the results would have been identical if instead of it being Yale Blue it had been Harvard Crimson. To be clear, I don’t believe it would matter if it were U Penn or the Community College of Sheboygen.

Now consider the current circumstances surrounding Covid-19, mandatory vaccination, and the people cheering on fellow Americans losing their jobs, being denied medical treatment, denied the ability to travel or see relatives, all because they won’t take an experimental gene therapy shot. Those dirty unvaxxed… And there stands the President of the United States telling the entire country that it is the “unvaccinated” causing all of the problems in this country. The American people – indeed, all people – are blind to their own human nature. And so they remain mystified how all of Germany could become “accessories” (to use Milgram’s term) to the Holocaust by ignoring that yes, you are capable of administering those shocks. Moreover, you are also capable of much worse when you get removed further and further from being the direct agent of harm. If you haven’t read what I linked above about the variations of Milgram’s studies – and what parameters changed the outcomes, for both worse and better – it’s worth your time.

Milgram’s entire experiment shows what happens when we outsource our moral responsibility through the lessening of our own agency. Put on a lab coat and we’ll shock people to death at a rate of about 3 out of 5. After all, we tell ourselves, it’s his experiment and he seems to know what he’s doing. He’s a doctor.

Now think about Fauci, or a completely corrupted and compromised agency like the FDA…   

After Hitler rose to power in the early 1930s, his pogroms started with those who had infectious disease – specifically, tuberculosis. This was nothing more than a continuation of what he had been saying since 1920. (It’s also worth noting that Hitler was wildly popular with socialists in the US and elsewhere during the 1930s. Franklin Roosevelt had tried repeatedly to have sit downs with Hitler to discuss how Hitler had revived Germany from the ashes of its crushing defeat in both the Great War and its awful Peace, the Treaty of Versailles.)

Hitler, we have observed, conceived of himself as a political physician. He insisted that every distress “has some cause or another.” His mission as a politician was to “penetrate to the cause” of Germany’s disease, and to effect a cure.

On the evening of July 10, 1941, Hitler declared at his table:

“I feel I am like Robert Koch in politics. He discovered the bacillus and thereby ushered medical science onto new paths. I discovered the Jew as the bacillus and the fermenting agent of all social decomposition.”

At Hitler’s table talk on 22 February 1942, the following statement was recorded:

“The discovery of the Jewish virus is one of the greatest revolutions that has taken place in the world. The battle in which we are engaged today is of the same sort as the battle waged, during the last century, by Pasteur and Koch. How many diseases have their origin in the Jewish virus! We shall regain our health only be eliminating the Jew.”

Robert Proctor observes that Hitler was celebrated as the “great doctor” of German society and as the “Robert Koch of politics.” As Robert Koch had discovered the Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacterium that causes tuberculosis, Hitler imagined that he had discovered the Jewish bacterium (or virus): the cause of Germany disease and suffering.

Richard A. Koeningsberg, “Hitler as the Robert Koch of Germany“.

Hannah Arendt watched Eichmann from the front row and penned a series of articles for The New Yorker that would become her famous book. A Jew herself, she received significant pushback for that work, in much the same way that Stanley Milgram did for his studies. People were horrified to hear Arendt refer to what Eichmann had done as “banal.” Of course, that is not at all what Arendt said, but what Arendt said, much like what Milgram said, creates a very uncomfortable feeling inside for many people. In fact, Arendt was trying to explain that “evil” is not some other – it is not some disease of the mind, or unique, recessive trait of bad genetics… or even of national character or culture, peculiar only to those Aryans. Nope. What Arendt was trying to tell people was that evil on a truly grand scale requires only that we suspend our own reason and agency, that we acquiesce in the face of what we know is wrong because we tell ourselves that we’re not directly responsible. Stanley Milgram put a much finer point on it and showed how even average, ordinary American citizens had a penchant for obedience and could become instruments of evil, just like the petty bureaucrat Eichmann, who six different psychologists examined and all described as almost depressingly normal. Milgram publicly referred to his work as the proof of what Arendt had already (by then) written and published.

For people in the military, this is how and why it is easy to treat a person who was your friend yesterday like a leper the next – because you have built in mechanisms, legal principles and an entire moral edifice that reinforces “all orders are presumed lawful” and are “disobeyed at one’s peril.” This is how the entire German Army could become complicit in such a massive crime against humanity. If 60% of “regular” folks will shock someone because of a guy in a lab coat, just imagine how many people who have been through the indoctrination process outlined above will do it. That is how you mobilize a nation to dehumanize the non-conforming. 

So the next time you read some mainstream media hit piece demonizing the unvaccinated, or you hear a politician pointing fingers at those who won’t bend the knee, do not be surprised. But more importantly, do not be surprised when the neighbors or your Uncle Al turn from warm and understanding fellows to petty and vicious tyrants to those whom they see as being untermensch. This is who and what we are.

The real problem is that we think it’s only 1.2% of us who are capable of such evil.

Liked it? Take a second to support The Abject Lesson on Patreon.
Become a patron at Patreon!