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Psychology & Power

Epistemology of Power - Milgram's experiment and its implications for today's research

[This article is adapted from an essay I wrote for the University of Roehampton]

To critically discuss epistemology and power, it is essential to start with Milgram’s experiment on obedience (1963). This is one of the most well known studies on individuals’ relationship with power. Since its publication, its results have been heavily debated and criticised.

The experiment focuses on the conflict between obedience of authority and personal conscience. The aim of the experiment was to see how far people would go obeying orders, even when this involved harming other people. I don’t want to explore the procedures of the experiment. It is important to mention that all participants continued to 300 volts, and 65% of them (two thirds) went up to the maximum of 450. Milgram carried out 18 variations on this study and it was replicated several times in different conditions with similar conclusions.

To start investigating the implications of the experiment, it is essential to contextualise it in its historical frame. The study took place in 1960s America, at the time when the world was trying to make sense of the holocaust. The experiment started in 1961, a year after Adolf Eichmann’s trial. It was published the same year as Hannah Arendt’s work on the ‘banality of evil’ (1963), just after Eichmann’s execution in 1962. Recent literature on the subject, still supports the juxtaposition of Milgram’s study to the historic understanding of the Holocaust (Mastroianni, 2002; Bridgman & Cummings, 2022). It seems that this combination is inextricable. Therefore, any investigation on the significance of Milgram’s experiment must begin with the historical context where the study took place.

Milgram’s study has been explained in different ways. The following paragraphs will critically evaluate the most commonly discussed theories. The first of those is Milgram’s own explanation, also called ‘agentic shift’ (1974). The second is the social identity explanation by Haslam and Reicher (2012). The third is the most recent, the rhetorical perspective offered by Gibson (2013; 2019). I will also briefly mention the social constructivistic approach.

1) The Agentic Shift

Milgram’s explanation is about reallocating personal responsibility to authority. In this case, the authority was the researcher, a white man in a medical coat. Milgram differentiates the ‘autonomous state’, where the person is able to make their own decision with agency and autonomy, to the ‘agentic state’. The latter is when the person acts as an agent for someone else’s will. The agentic shift implies a split situation where the individual feels they need to respond to authority directly, but do not feel morally responsible for their own actions.This approach has been often described as ‘blind obedience’. The individual implicitly trusts the authority figure to be qualified to give orders and to take responsibility for the consequences. This is the classic interpretation of the study and it is also implicitly supported by the concept of ‘banality of evil’ by Arendt.

A consequence of this interpretation is the continual escalation of harm-doing. This was theorised by Milgram himself. When the participants inflict pain, they feel justified for the harm they have inflicted so far. Recent research (Gino & Bazerman, 2009) shows that individuals are more likely to accept unethical behaviours when they are implemented slowly over time, rather than with an abrupt shift. According to another study (Haston & Sherman, 2012), this would also make individuals feel less morally accountable for their own actions.

2) The Social Identity Paradigm

The social identity paradigm, theorised by Haslam and Reicher, offers a radically contrasting picture. This was somehow anticipated by Goldhagen’s work (1996) on the holocaust. According to this paradigm, the individual would follow authority, only when they believe the authority is right and therefore ideologically identify with the authority itself. The main critic here is that people cannot be turned into oppressors just because of their propensity to conform. This gives the responsibility back to the perpetrators, portraying a less compassionate picture. Obeying authority is seen as an active process initiated by choice, as opposed to a passive response to necessity. At its core, this interpretation consists in the hypothesis that tyranny is not the product of helplessness and ignorance, but of willing individuals who actively identify with the ideology they are promoting.

3) The Rhetorical Approach

The third and most recent interpretation, offered by Gibson (2013; 2019), is a rhetorical approach. Rather than focusing on the outcome of the experiment, it highlights the context, the power dynamic and how the outcome was pursued. Ultimately, Gibson points out that Milgram’s study has nothing to do with obedience as such. In this paradigm, Gibson explores the use of language, which, in his view, was completely overlooked by Milgram. In particular, Gibson focuses on the 4th prod (“You have no other choice, you must go on”), understanding it as a form of coercion and persuasion. This approach is based on the discourse of obedience and highlights ethical issues.

4) Social Constructivism

There is a fourth paradigm to understand Milgram that is worth mentioning. However, this is substantially related to Gibson’s interpretation, that it is somehow difficult to tell them apart. Werhane and colleagues (2011) invite us to look at the experiment with the lens of social constructivism. While Gibson focuses on the discourse of obedience, the social constructivist paradigm highlights the manipulation of the whole context. This argues that the frame of the experiment is set up to manipulate the naive participants and therefore obedience is the product of a deception. Both the rhetorical and the social constructivist theories analyse the procedural aspects of the experiment and invite the reader to a meta-perspective, beyond the results.

What the rhetorical and the social identity interpretations have in common is the idea that the individual’s actions are not a product of passive submission, but rather of active agency. The rhetorical perspective also offers an appropriate link to think about the implications of this study for today’s psychology. This is because Gibson’s approach has the merit to focus on the context (rather than the outcomes). In doing so, one of the main points offered by Gibson is the ethical evaluation of the prods. He also discussed the nature of the interactions between the experimenter and the participants. This highlights that in the context of this experiment there are several ethical issues. They can be summarised with three main points.

First, the issues with deception: the participants were deliberately lied to about the purpose of the research and actively deceived during the study.They were told the experiment was about learning, rather than obedience. Furthermore, they are not aware that the ‘learner’ was, in fact, an actor. It is relevant to point out that by actively presenting a deception the researcher was abusing the participants’ naivety.

Second, the experiment was actively inducing distress in the participants. In all transcripts and videos it is possible to witness the explicit concern and even anxiety produced by the examiner. Clear signs are shown, such as shakes, stuttering, laughing hysterically, biting lips, stuttering, trembling, sweating and so on. The researcher continued to push them to carry out the procedure and activate the electric shock, even when faced with explicit requests to stop the experiment.

Third, the study presents serious issues related to consent and the participants’ right to withdraw. All four prods were semantically designed to push the participant to proceed. They did not offer them a choice, but rather induced a sense of urgency and necessity.

These are just a few ethical issues. It can also be mentioned that the sample was biased, as all participants were males between 20 and 50 years of age, therefore not necessarily representative of the whole population. In relation to this bias, a recent paper discusses the notion of fragile and ‘shocking’ masculinity portrayed in the experiment (Nicholson, 2016). Many other ethical issues and biases keep being debated in psychological books and papers, showing that the interest in this topic is not extinguishing. The debate around Milgram’s study keeps being current (Zdunek et al., 2022; Athanassoulis, 2022). Especially in the field of politics, this can produce changes in policies with practical implications (Hollander, 2016). The following few paragraphs will offer some examples of how the epistemology of power and obedience is still very much influenced by Milgram’s experiment.

The first example is how Milgram's obedience paradigm plays out in the death penalty debate in the U.S.A. The way capital sentences are carried out follows Milgram’s interpretation that the more a task is fragmented the higher the level of obedience. Even if studies clearly show that the executioners are psychologically impacted (Gil et al., 2006; Misra, 2022), there is the belief that, somehow, splitting the task of institutionalised murder would absolve the executioners.

The second example is the applications of Stephen Reicher’s work on the Covid-19 pandemic management in the UK. Reicher was very influential in the government’s adoption of lockdown measures. He talked about creating ‘engaged followers’ (Reicher & Haslam, 2019; Reicher et al., 2012). This stressed the importance for people to feel a sense of agency, and not just passively following overimposed rules. He also criticised Milgram’s ‘agentic shift’ theory for being inconclusive in explaining why people endured lockdowns and restrictions. He also argued against the government for pursuing a shift towards ‘personal responsibility’ (Reicher et al., 2022). This is an example of how this debate has affected the life of people in very recent times.

Milgram’s study also found a place in the debate on social identity. According to the theory of ‘group engagement’ (Tyler & Blader, 2003), individuals are more likely to obey the law when they feel part of the same in-group with the authority promoting the law. This has profound implications for how people participate in society, for their sense of community and social inclusion.

Another fundamental implication of studies such as Milgram’s and Zimbardo’s (Haney et al., 1973a, 1973b) is in the field of research itself. It was also because of those experiments that psychologists started to develop codes of ethical practice and research. The first Committee for Ethical Standards in Psychology was created in 1947 in the U.S. (Hobbs, 1948), therefore before Milgram and Zimbardo. However, in the years following those experiments, both the American Psychological Association and the British Psychological Society (respectively APA and BPS) undertook profound changes in their understandings of ethics and ethical research. Following today’s BPS’s ethical guidance for conduct and human research (2021a; 2021b), Milgram’s experiment would be considered highly unethical. This shows how much research ethics has evolved and developed in less than a century.


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