by Stanley Milgram

This classic work of psychology
amply demonstrates
and documents
"the banality of evil".

It is because it reminds me
of so much which I am currently dealing with
in a number of personal matters,
that I thought I would share it with you.

People are told to shock a man,
who is a volunteer,
but not to go above a certain amount of voltage,
lest it kill or injure the person.

Then in the course of the experiment
they are told to do just that.

Even while hearing the man scream
at them to stop it
(voluntary, remember?) 
and then apparently passing out,
they continue doing what they are told,
even though they were just told
that it may kill or injure the man.

I have chosen a number of quotes
which I believe give the flavor
of this experimental study,
and of it's rather disturbing,
but VERY RELEVANT findings
and of the book, itself,
in a rather succinct manner,
which I think to be incredibly analogous
to the facts at hand before me
on this very day,
as we speak.



"Our studies deal only with obedience
that is willingly assumed
in the absence of threat of any sort
obedience that is maintained
through the simplest assertion by authority
that has the right to exercise control over the person.
(Preface p. xiii)

Despite the fact that many subjects experience stress,
despite the fact that many protest to the experimenter,
a substantial proportion
continue to the last shock on the generator.
(p. 5)

It is the extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority that constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation. (p. 5) 

Indeed, it is highly reminiscent
of the issue that arose in connection with
Hannah Arendt's 1963 book,
Eichmann in Jerusalem.

Arendt contended that the prosecution's effort
to depict Eichmann as a sadistic monster
was fundamentally wrong,
that he came closer to being
an uninspired bureaucrat
who simply sat at his desk
and did his job.
(p. 5)

--- I must conclude that Arendt's conception
of the banality of evil
comes closer to the truth
than one might dare imagine.

The ordinary persons who shocked the victim
did so out a a sense of obligation
- a conception of his duties as a subject -
and not from any peculiarly aggressive tendencies.

This is, perhaps,
the most fundamental lesson of our study

Ordinary people,
simply doing their jobs,
and without any particular hostility
on their part,
can become agents
in a terrible destructive process.

even when the destructive effects
of their work
become patently clear,
and they are asked to carry out actions
incompatible with fundamental standards of morality,
relatively few people
have the resources needed
to resist authority

A variety of inhibitions
against disobeying authority
come into play
and successfully keep the person
in his place. (p. 6)

Moral factors can be shunted aside
with relative ease
by a calculated restructuring
of the informational and social field.

What, then, keeps the person obeying the experimenter?

there is a set of "binding factors"
that lock the subject into the situation.

They included such factors as
politeness on his part,
his desire to uphold his initial promise
of aid to the experimenter,
and the awkwardness of withdrawal.

a number of adjustments in the subject's thinking occur
that undermine his resolve to break with the authority.

The adjustments help the subject maintain his relationship
with the experimenter,
while at the same time reducing the strain
brought about by the experimental conflict.

They are typical of thinking
that comes about in obedient persons
when they are instructed by authority
to act against helpless individuals. (p. 7)

The disappearance of a sense of responsibility
is the most far-reaching consequence
of submission to authority.

--- In wartime,
a soldier does not ask
whether it is good or bad to bomb a hamlet;
he does not experience shame or guilt
in the destruction of a village:

rather he feels pride or shame
depending on how well
he has performed the mission
assigned to him. (p. 8)

(re: one of the experimental subjects) 
--- For him the human agent
had faded from the picture,
and "The Experiment"
had acquired an impersonal momentum of its own.

--- An American newspaper recently quoted
a pilot who conceded
that Americans were bombing
Vietnamese men, women, and children
but felt that the bombing
was for a "noble cause"
and thus was justified. 
(p. 9)

--- Systematic devaluation of the victim
provides a measure of psychological justification
for brutal treatment
of the victim
and has been the constant accompaniment
of massacres, pogroms, and wars.

In all likelihood,
our subjects would have experienced greater ease
in shocking the victim
had he been convincingly portrayed
as a brutal criminal
or a pervert.

Of considerable interest, however,
is the fact that many subjects
harshly devalue the victim
as a consequence of acting against him

Such comments as,
"He was so stupid and stubborn he deserved to get shocked,"
were common.

Once having acted against the victim,
these subjects found it necessary
to view him as an unworthy individual
whose punishment was made inevitable
by his own deficiencies
of intellect and character.
(p. 9-10)

subjects excused their behavior
by saying that the responsibility belonged to the man
who actually pulled the switch.

This may illustrate
a dangerously typical situation
in complex society:

it is psychologically easy
to ignore responsibility
when one is only an intermediate link
in a chain of evil action
but is far from
the final consequences of the action.

Even Eichmann was sickened
when he toured the concentration camps,
but to participate in mass murder
he had only to sit at a desk and shuffle papers.

At the same time the man in the camp
who actually dropped Cyclon-B into the gas chamber
was able to justify his behavior
on the grounds that he was only following orders from above.

Thus there is a fragmentation of the total human act;
no one man decides to carry out the evil act
and is confronted with its consequences.

The person who assumes full responsibility for the act
has evaporated.

Perhaps this is the most common characteristic
of socially organized evil in modern society.
(p. 11)

--- Throughout, from 150 volts on,
he insisted that he be let out of the experiment.

At 300 volts
the victim shouted in desperation
that he would no longer provide answers
to the memory test.

At this juncture,
it was found,
subjects would usually turn to the experimenter for guidance.

The experimenter would instruct the subject
to treat the absence of a response as a wrong answer,
and to shock the subject according to the usual schedule.

--- and to increase the shock level one step
each time the learner failed to respond correctly.

At 315 volts,
after a violent scream,
the victim reaffirmed vehemently
that he was no longer a participant.

He provided no answers,
but shrieked in agony
whenever a shock was administered.

After 330 volts
he was not heard from
nor did his answers reappear
on the four-way signal box. (p. 23)

Expected Behavior

--- They predict
that virtually all subjects
will refuse to obey the experimenter;
only a pathological fringe,
not exceeding one or two per cent,
was expected to proceed
to the end of the shockboard. ---

What are the assumptions
that underlie these predictions?

that people are by and large decent
and do not readily hurt the innocent.

that unless coerced
by physical force or threat,
the individual is preeminently
the source of his own behavior.

A person acts in a particular way
because he has decided to do so. (p. 31)

Of the 40 subjects,
26 obeyed
the orders of the experimenter
to the end,
proceeding to punish the victim
until they reached the most potent shock available
on the generator.

After the 450-volt shock was administered three times,
the experimenter called a halt to the session.

Subjects were frequently in an agitated state. --- (p. 33)

Observers noted:

--- subjects show a reluctance to look at the victim,
whom they could see through the glass in front of them.

When this fact was brought to their attention,
they indicated that it caused them discomfort
to see the victim in agony.

We note, however,
that although the subject refuses to look at the victim,
he continues to administer shocks
. (p. 34)

Subjects often expressed disapproval
of shocking a man in the face of his objections,
and others denounced it as stupid and senseless.

Yet many followed the experimental commands. (p. 41)

In the postexperimental interview
subjects were asked,

"What is the maximum sample shock
you would be willing to accept?

--- Of the 26 obedient subjects,
7 were willing to sample the 450-volt shock
they had just administered,
while 19 were not.

In most cases there is a marked discrepancy
between the shock the subject administered
and the level he would be willing to accept as a sample
. ---
(p. 57)

Obedience dropped sharply
when the experimenter was physically removed
from the laboratory.

The number of obedient sucjects in the first condition (26)
was almost three times as great as in the second (9),
in which the experimenter gave his orders by telephone.

Subjects seemed able to resist the experimenter
far better when they did not have to confront him
face to face.

when the experimenter was absent,
subjects displayed an interesting form of behavior
that had not occurred under his surveillance.

Though continuing with the experiment,
several subjects administered lower shocks
than they were required
and never informed the experimenter
of their deviation from the correct procedure.

in telephone conversations
some subjects specifically assured the experimenter
that they were raising the shock level
according to instruction, while, in reality,
they repeatedly used the lowest shock on the board."
(p. 62)

Excerpts quoted from OBEDIENCE TO AUTHORITY

by Stanley Milgram

Copyright 1974 by Stanley Milgram

First Harper Paperback Published 1975