Obedience to Authority

It is not often that a psychological experiment is discussed in work of fiction. Stanley Milgram’s well-known experiment on obedience and disobedience is an exception. You may recall that in the guise of a study on the effect of punishment on learning, subjects were “ordered” by the experimenter to give increasingly more severe shocks for errors made by the learner in another room who cried out in pain as the shocks became more painful. (Of course, the learner never received shocks and the cries of pain were bogus, although the teacher believed shock was being delivered to the learner.) Milgram reported that sixty-five percent of the subjects in this basic procedure obeyed the experimenter and went to the very end of the thirty-point shock level generator.

Milgram's classic experiments stunned me, as they have virtually everyone who reads or hears about them. They revealed the enormous power of the social situation in controlling behavior and the extent to which an individual can be induced to harm another person. In his recent discussion of two recent novels that describe these studies, Edward Champion says, “Ordinary people have relatively few resources to resist being sucked into an activity which normal circumstances would see them shrinking from in disgust.” Moreover, they did this in a compelling laboratory situation of deep personal consequence to the participants. Finally, as they have for so many others, their relevance to the Holocaust moved me deeply. The force of these experiments has similarly affected countless students and scholars in a variety of disciplines to this day.

Champion describes two recent novels, Chip Kidd’s The Learners, and Will Lavender’s Obedience, that have concerned themselves with Milgram’s experiments. I have just started reading a third, Rebecca Goldstein’s tour-de-force, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. Early in the novel, the brilliant game theorist, The Goddess of Game Theory, Lucinda Mandelbaum attends a seminar in which the long-winded speaker claims the subjects (teachers) in Milgram’s experiments fail to display the slightest degree of moral reasoning. Madelbaum takes issue with this interpretation arguing that the experiment is an instance of what is called an escalation game in game theory.

“Once a participant takes the first step, he’s already paid a certain price—he’s inflicted discomfort, and he’s feeling bad about it—but if he stops he’ll get nothing for his pain…So once he’s made his first bid, and the experimenter escalates by telling him he has to give an even stronger shock at the next mistake or he will not have completed the experiment like a good subject, he’s more than likely to escalate by complying.”

Lucinda claims that once you view the study this way, the results are completely predictable. She then proposes a test: run the experiment without requiring the subject to incrementally increase the intensity of the shock. She predicts not a single subject will deliver the highest level on the shock generator.

In fact, her interpretation does not predict the experimental results observed by Milgram and others who have replicated the study. In particular, it does not account for the fact that thirty-five percent of the subjects do not follow the experimenter’s order, who say they cannot go on any longer, and withdraw from the experiment. They are known as the disobedient subjects, the resistors, if you will.

In addition, Lucinda’s prediction is incorrect. Milgram did conduct the experiment she proposes and found that when subjects were allowed to choose the shock intensity level, there was one subject who continued to the highest level (30th shock level) and another went to the 25th level, well beyond the point at which the learner had stopped responding altogether, which should have led any normal person to wonder if he was even alive.

Milgram concludes his discussion of the study this way: “Insofar as the experiments tell us something about human nature, the revelation on how men act toward others when they are on their own is here. Whatever leads to shocking the victim at the highest level cannot be explained by autonomously generated aggression but needs to be explained by the transformation of behavior that comes about through obedience to orders.”

I suspect Rebecca Goldstein was not aware of this study—Number 11 in a series of variations Milgram carried out on his basic design. Is a factual refutation of an explanation presented in a work of fiction relevant? In order to answer this question you might want to look at the context in which it is introduced. Everything Goldstein had earlier presented about game theory, the nature of a zero-sum game, and escalation games is factually correct. To maintain consistency with this framework then, it seems reasonable to me to continue in that vein and either propose another untested empirical explanation or let the story go forward in light of the falsification of Lucinda’s proposal