Dark Side, Bright Spot

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Revisiting a controversial experiment finds nuances in human nature.

In 1961, with memories of Holocaust atrocities and the prosecution of Nazi officials at Nuremburg still fresh, American psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a series of now infamous experiments that seemed to reveal the dark side of human nature.

His results were disturbing: about two-thirds of Milgram’s nearly eight hundred study subjects, pressed by an authoritative experimenter, were willing to administer increasingly powerful electric shocks to an unseen stranger, despite cries of agony and pleas to stop. But Matthew Hollander, a UW–Madison sociology graduate student, examined the experiences of more than one hundred of Milgram’s participants, and he found a great deal more nuance in their performances — and perhaps a way to prevent people from shelving their ethical judgment.

Milgram divided his subjects into two categories: obedient or disobedient.

“The majority did cave, and followed the experimenter’s orders,” Hollander says. “But a good number of people resisted.”

Hollander’s unprecedentedly deep conversational analysis of audio recordings of the experiments yielded six practices participants employed against the repeated insistence of Milgram’s authority figure. Hollander found study subjects resorting to silence and hesitation, groaning and sighing to display the effort it took to comply, and (typically uncomfortable) laughter.

They also found more explicit ways to express their discomfort and disagreement. Subjects stalled by talking to the recipient of the shocks and by addressing their concerns to the experimenter.

Many resorted to what Hollander calls the stop try. Most often, stop tries involved some variation on, “I can’t do this anymore,” or “I won’t do this anymore,” and were employed by 98 percent of the disobedient Milgram subjects Hollander studied. That’s compared to fewer than 20 percent of the obedient subjects.

If people could be trained to tap practices for resistance such as those outlined in Hollander’s analysis, they may be better equipped to stand up to an illegal, unethical, or inappropriate order from a superior. And these practices would not only apply to extreme situations, such as torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq or in the CIA interrogations described by the recently released U.S. Senate report, says Douglas Maynard, a UW sociology professor who works with Hollander.

“Think of the pilot and copilot in a plane experiencing an emergency, or a school principal telling a teacher to discipline a student, and the difference it could make if the subordinate could be respectfully, effectively resistive — and even disobedient — when ethically necessary or for purposes of social justice,” he says.

Published in the Summer 2015 issue

Tags: Humanities, Research

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