Sunday, September 02, 2007


Stanley Milgram's experiment on obedience. Part 1:

Part 2:

(h/t to Museum of Hoaxes)


  1. Hey, I just linked Milgram on talkingphilosophy yesterday. Probably one of the most interesting and important psychology experiments ever done - so much so that I keep expecting a revisionist debunking saying that he cheated or something. But not so far.

    Totally gives the lie to the claim that it takes religion to make good people do bad things. And don't you just love the second comment on the site you hat-tipped?

    BTW, the clips are not live ones of the experiments but from the film "Obedience" that Milgram made to explain the experiments afterwards - so I think the subject ("teacher") is actually acting here.

  2. According to Dr. Thomas Blass, Milgram's "first film was the gripping black-and-white documentary, “Obedience.” It was shot at Yale in May, 1962, right after Milgram completed his series of experiments. Milgram made the film to provide visual evidence of his incredible findings." [emphasis added]

    This is an apparently contradictory description. A documentary should document, not reenact, and a reenactment should not be considered scientific evidence, even when a scientist is speaking casually. A true documentary might have been compiled after the experiment, but it could not have been shot afterwards.

  3. It doesn't require religion to make good people do bad things, but the entire business of religion is to support and propagate the sort of authoritarianism that is required.

  4. Also, there is a component of supernaturalism in any authoritarian system, whether it be theistic or—like Marxism or Libertarianism—non-theistic.

    If we identify supernaturalism and irrationality rather than theism as the essential component of religion, then, by definition, it does take religion to make good people do bad things.

    In Milgram's case, the supernaturalism comes into play in that the participants felt irrationally powerless to stop the experiment or even refuse to participate, even though they were not actually coerced in any way.

  5. I had a look at the Penn State site that sells "Obedience" and it uses the words candid and authentic, so perhaps it was real footage compiled afterwards. I have a copy of Milgram's book somewhere - I will dig it out tomorrow and see if it sheds any light.

    I agree that religion is a good ("good" as in bad) source of authority. But not that there is a component of supernaturalism involved in all cases of obedience to authority. Supernaturalism requires a conscious (if perhaps vague) belief in a non-natural force. Obedience to authority is a subconscious response, or at any rate a response not under conscious control. In fact, some of the subjects in Milgram's experiments said afterwards that they were glad to have participated because it had made them better at conscious rational consideration of their responses.

  6. Found the book, but no mention of the film, nor any specific statement that I found that it was all filmed. Long transcripts though, so probably it was.

  7. My intuitive take on the film was that the "teacher" who appeared didn't seem to be acting; the "learner" (whom we know was acting) was much less convincing.


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