Monday, October 13, 2014

Stanley Milgram, Nazis, and Ethics



Aeon
"The spectre of Nazism and the banality of evil haunted the Milgram experiment. The capture and trial of the Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann took place at the same time as Milgram’s tests; the tests concluded within days of Eichmann’s execution. At the core of Milgram’s tests was the scientist’s desire to replicate as best he could the conditions of the gas chamber. He sought to induce the Holocaust in individual subjects so that he could measure evil at the atomic level. In an interview for 60 Minutes in 1979, Milgram told the host Morley Safer:
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 these camps in any medium-sized American town.
It’s an ugly thing to know, and no doubt a stressful thing to prove a thousand times. After controversy regarding the ethics of his experiments, Milgram was denied tenure. He had a successful career at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, but nothing he did could eclipse the notorious experiment he had designed in his 20s. In 1984, Milgram died, after his fifth heart attack, at the age of 51.
When I first learnt about Milgram in a high-school psychology class, I asked my grandfather, a Jewish clinical psychologist of the same era, about the experiments. He shook his head, sighed, and said ‘Poor Stanley’. Milgram had hoped a version of the Nazis’ own racial logic could save the rest of us from being implicated in the depths of their crimes: that there might be some distinctive evil about the Germans. But once the cross-cultural comparison was quickly deemed irrelevant, why proceed with the experiments? 
...The conclusion that man is cruel and beastly is repeated throughout art, theology and philosophy, not to mention the historical record. Milgram half-heartedly hoped that knowledge and awareness about obedience might decrease the human propensity to follow orders, but there’s no evidence that this is the case. In 2007, the Santa Clara University psychologist Jerry M Burger in collaboration with ABC News reproduced the experiment under current ethical guidelines. Nearly half a century after Milgram first performed the test, they found virtually no change in compliance, even with additional warnings and disclosures to the participants. It’s one of the most famous social science experiments of all time, but awareness, like pleading, doesn’t seem to do much good."

The whole article is worth reading. Most Intro Psych textbooks leave out the original hypothesis -- that there was something wrong with Germans that made them so obedient to immoral orders. The texts also shy away from the obvious conclusion -- that there's something deeply wrong with us, human beings. The textbooks try to play off the Experimenters as being evil -- if only we could do something about the people giving evil instructions, the rest of us would go our innocent way. But there are no innocents.

The hysteria over the "ethics" of Milgram's study is also worth considering. It is important to note that no lasting harm was caused to any of the participants, only temporary distress. They were all informed that they hadn't actually hurt anyone. None of the participants sued Yale University or became drug addicts or died by suicide as a direct result of their participation. In a civil suit they would be very hard pressed to prove damages. I suspect that our current hyper-scrupulosity over the treatment of psychology research participants stems more from our faint hope that we could actually harm them in our experiments (which would make us just like "real" doctors). It is interesting that the ethical horror stories we tell always involve physicians, not psychologists (e.g., the Tuskegee Syphilis study, Nazi medical experimentation). It is quite ridiculous that the informed consent procedure to participate in an undergraduate's little psych experiment is more involved and complex than the informed consent procedure you have to undergo prior to surgery.

Getting upset about the "ethics" of Milgram's treatment of his participants is a way of distracting oneself from the implications of his findings. We're no better than the Nazis. There is something broken about all of us. We don't need Experimenters in White Lab Coats to make us do bad things. We know we do bad things. That's why we are so restless and discontented.

Do you think Freud would have been surprised by Milgram's findings? Would Dostoevsky have been?



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