Experimenter is a film released in 2015 starring Peter Sarsgaard. It tells the story of Dr. Stanley Milgram's life, including the infamous Milgram electric shock experiment, tests on crowds, and his work developing a theory on the mechanics of social networks. It currently streams on Netflix.
I first heard about Stanley Milgram's psychological experiments when I was a kid. There was a (terrible) movie on TV called The Tenth Level with William Shatner and since I was a Star Trek fan I watched it. Dr. Milgram brought in subjects ostensibly to test a theory to find out whether the fear of electric shock would help people's memory.
If you haven't heard about Milgram's most famous experiment it goes like this: Two people are brought into a room as experimental subjects. A coin is flipped, one person becomes the experimenter and one the “learner”. The experimenter sits in a room with a a device that administers electric shocks, from very small shocks of 15 volts up to large 450 volt jolts. The learner sits in another room wired up to electric shock equipment. Neither can see the other.
The experimenter can speak to the learner via a microphone, asking multiple-choice questions to test the learner's memory. The learner can't speak back, but responds by pressing a button selecting a choice. Wrong answer and the experimenter gives them an electric shock. Next wrong answer gets a stronger shock. Another wrong answer after that and the shock is stronger still. If the experimenter starts feeling hesitant or guilty about administering these shocks a pleasant young man in a lab coat tells them “Please continue.” 65% of Milgram's test subjects continued to administer shocks to the learner all the way to 450 volts.
In reality there is no shock, the coin flip is rigged, and the learner is an accomplice of Milgram's. The only person being studied is the experimenter, and the test is to see if they'll keep shocking a complete stranger with progressively more and more electricity just because someone tells them to “Please continue.”
Milgram was extremely interested in Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, trying to experimentally determine whether there was something odd or different about German culture that allowed their people to perform such horrible acts. After his experiments he concluded that there was nothing odd or different about German culture – that the same sorts of horrendous acts could happen in any country, anywhere, in any century. In his 1974 book Obedience to Authority, an Experimental View. Milgram wrote that “with numbing regularity good people were to seen to knuckle under to the demands of authority and perform actions that were callous and severe.” Even if the authority was simply a pleasant young man in a lab coat telling someone to “Please continue.”
Experimenter goes on to cover Milgram's later experiments, including the Small World Project and the Wisdom of Crowds experiment.
In the Small World Project Milgram sent 160 small packages to 160 random people in Nebraska, with instructions that the final destination of the package was a stockbroker in Boston. None of the recipients knew the stockbroker, they were instructed to mail the package to someone they knew personally who might know the stockbroker, along with the same instructions. As they sent the package along each sender recorded their own name, then sent the package along to a friend who could forward it on to someone else.
On average it took each package five intermediate hops to get to the stockbroker, which is where the “six degrees of separation” theory comes from, as well as the “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” game.
In the Wisdom of Crowds, a single person stands on a corner and looks up at the empty sky for 60 seconds while someone across the street records how many people stop and look up. A tiny fraction of passers-by stop to see what the person is looking at. Then Milgram puts five people on the street corner staring at the empty sky for 60 seconds. Now four times as many people stop and look up. When they put 15 people on the corner looking up, 45% of the passers-by stopped to look up. As they increased the number of accomplices they got the 80% of people passing by to look up.
I drew a different lesson, that people in an unfamiliar situation, when they are not sure what the correct thing to do is, rely on social cues from the people around them and then behave accordingly. It's not often that you're in a situation where you're being asked to shock someone because they got a question wrong – so you look for a person who's comfortable with the situation, someone who seems confident that they're doing the right thing, someone who looks like they know what they're doing – and you try to behave the same. You go along with what they tell you.
It's not often that you get a package from a Harvard professor asking you to participate in an experiment, but once you forward that package on to someone you know, they're much more likely to send it on to the next person because you asked them to – the second person in the chain knows one person that's already gone along with the experiment, so they're more likely to go along and forward the package to a third person. With each forward it becomes more likely that person will continue to forward the message.
It's not often that you see a crowd of people looking up, but if there is, that must be the thing to do – there must be something there to see, and what could it hurt to look up?
It's not often that you're in a situation where given a gun and told to kill people, or where everyone is dressed in the same uniform as you and you're told to march anyone not in that uniform into the gas chambers. People look to the people around them, the ones that are dressed in the same uniform, and try to behave the same. In these cases the people committing atrocities aren't just committing them because they're ordered to, but because they don't know what they should do, so they look to the people around them for social cues.
Everyone else is doing it, please continue.
Milgram thought that in order to guard against destructive obedience that people must be skeptical of authority and those who give orders. However, if you watch Experimenter and reach the same conclusion that I do -- that people determine what correct behavior is by watching those around them -- then the best way to guard against authoritarianism is for as many people as possible to stand up to authority and protest – loudly and publicly. By demonstrating and speaking up, you show others that they don't have to go along with those in power. By protesting and marching, you show that not everyone agrees with the way things are going. By speaking up and being heard, you encourage others to do the same, to voice their opinions, to stand up to evil and make the world a better place.