Milgram and Adventures in Obedience

Observing the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Stanley Milgram, Professor of Social Psychology at Yale asked himself the question, could men like Eichmann be ordinary people who were simply following orders? How willingly would an ordinary human being obey an authority figure, if they were instructed to perform an act that conflicted with their conscience?

In the experiment Milgram devised, ordinary human beings were directed to administer electric shocks to another human being. That person was not actually wired, but they were asked to scream and cry out with conviction. The shocks administered went up to a lethal level and the participants kept obeying, even though some became distressed at the consequences of their actions. A person in a white coat simply said, ‘please continue’ and so they did.  

It is easy to watch parts of this experiment today in terms of access, courtesy of You Tube. It is never easy to watch the experiment in terms of its discomfort factor. Many ordinary people rejected Milgram’s findings by saying, ‘I would never have obeyed such an order. Not me.’ Milgram continued his experiments around the world, on different groups, with dismally familiar results. 

Milgram will always have a special place in the pit of my stomach. Just for starters, I think of him when I catch a glimpse of a TV show such as Funniest Home Videos. When I hear adults laughing at images of children suffering injuries to backs and necks, I know that Milgram was on to something unpleasant about human beings. When I see talent shows or reality shows where cruelty and rejection are both trotted out as entertainment, I wonder what possesses any adult to put aside their own instincts and laugh at an injured child, jungle tortures or dashed hopes, just because a studio light flashes the word LAUGH.

In my career, to date, I’ve never had to administer electrical shocks to employees, but I once had to manage an outdoor team-building program back in the 90’s. I hated it. I learned that you could put employees in danger in the name of team-building, and precious few would object.

The training crew did not wear white coats. Instead we put people in company t-shirts and invented all sorts of team chants and slogans for them. In no time at all we had rational people abseiling down walls and playing games they probably hoped they’d left behind in primary school. We had them falling backwards off platforms and hoping their new-found buddies would catch them. And we were on the lighter side of the equation. Other well-known companies had employees running over hot coals chanting ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ or swimming through spider-infested caves or getting lost in the wilderness.

At the end of a week, over-tired participants made emotional declarations about their life changing experience, having been manipulated into thinking the sky was the limit.

What message was the company sending about how it felt about its people? What habit or skill were we attempting to polish? We had a clear mandate from the executives of the company. ‘Please continue.’  We had a backlog of people wanting to be on this course, in the sorry belief that it was good for their career prospects. 

There are many things that I cringe about in my working life. That program would make the top five. As an introvert, the entire Yee-Har school of training is one that still makes me recoil. Years later, managers in other companies would reminisce about the good old days of team building programs when their company sent them to get lost for days on end and they had to eat bugs, canoe down freezing rivers and crap in front of their colleagues. All good sense should tell us that this fad was not only stupid and unsafe, but highly unnecessary in the name of retaining good employees. The psychological contract of work should never include embarrassing employees into hanging upside down in front of their colleagues or creating a human pyramid to get over a cheap plywood wall. Most of us would never seek out the experience of being seen or smelled after five days without a wash.

I could refuse to take part in such nonsense today, but back then, I was young and new in the job and I hoped to stay in the company for a few years at least. I gritted my teeth and hoped nobody I knew would see me in the middle of the throng. If Milgram had been beside me, I’m sure he would have said, “You were doing as you were told” but the truth is, it just wasn’t a good enough excuse. And it never is. 


3 thoughts on “Milgram and Adventures in Obedience”

  1. Good one, I had forgotten about Milgram whom we had to study as student teachers.
    I am censoring my comment a tad because, truthfully, I have come across many people in the work place that I felt like kicking in the backside. Mainly because of their laziness or their delight in humiliating children. We have to keep being positive about the world and that means expunging the bad memories of failed humans that we have to deal with. Education and kindness, I’m voting for both!

  2. Don’t be too hard on yourself for orchestrating this sort of activity – lots of people are inflicting similar cringeworthy suffering on themselves for the sake of being famous on TV. And it is a spectator sport too.

    Having dressed up as a blind sheep to be rounded up by someone dressed as a sheepdog for work I think I can speak from experience (OK it wasn’t dangerous) it was revealing to see your colleagues in a totally different light. And when introverts light up it can really surprise others. I speak as a renowned rap artist.

  3. Interesting and thought-provoking article Cheryl. I’ve watched that chilling footage from the Milgram experiment several times on various TV programmes. Each time I shout at the television “Why don’t you stop?” when the volunteers administer the ‘electric shock’. In the back of my mind is the very uncomfortable question “Would my moral compass kick in to stop me doing the same thing in similar circumstances?”

    I also remember the days of corporate ‘team building’ events and listening to the traumatic experiences of colleagues who were ‘persuaded’ to abseil down sheer cliff faces or crawl through narrow caves with the promise of making them a stronger leader. I suppose the least we can say is that these difficult shared experiences may have generated a sense of camaraderie amongst those who suffered together. Thankfully, most organisations use more sophisticated activities to achieve the same outcome these days and health and safety considerations have had a big impact on the nature of activities.

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