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What Milgram’s Shock Experiment Can – and Can’t – Tell Us About the Holocaust


NEW YORK—To what extent can human behavior during the Holocaust be explained in a laboratory setting? Stanley Milgram, an American social psychologist, thought he’d accomplished the feat with a series of experiments on obedience that quickly became notorious.

Working at Yale University in the early 1960s, Milgram created a test that appeared to measure the effect of punishment on learning. He had his human subjects give a word pairing test to another “subject” in a different room—in fact, the experimenter’s accomplice—and administer electrical shocks with increasing intensity whenever the subject made a mistake. Even as the accomplice cried out in pain, pleaded to be released, and finally lapsed into suspicious silence, the experimenter would direct the subject to continue the electrical shocks.

Under his original experimental conditions Milgram found that more than half his subjects continued to increase the shocks to voltage levels clearly marked “Danger: Severe Shock.” Most had expressed qualms and exhibited anxiety throughout the process, but nevertheless pressed the buttons that delivered the shocks until they reached the 450-volt maximum.

Milgram drew conclusions about the impact of situational elements on human behavior and, at least initially, drew an explicit comparison to the behavior of Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust. Some psychologists and historians have since echoed the ties, while others have disputed them harshly.

On the second day of FASPE, the law and journalism fellows watched the 1965 documentary film depicting the experiments and debated the cogency of the Milgram-Holocaust comparison.

Eric Muller of the University of North Carolina School of Law, one of the law faculty leaders, set up the film and discussion with context: how have psychologists, historians, philosophers, and writers tried to explain the Holocaust?

One of the first theories about Germans’ behavior in the Holocaust centered on positivism, he explained. Germans, according to the theory, deferred to laws and rules that were codified, without a larger moral frame to negate or question them, Muller said. The Holocaust, then, could be considered a result of “positivism gone amuck.” But the theory only goes so far: it does not cover human reactions to seemingly arbitrary fluctuation of laws.

Various theories over the years have drawn on two kinds of arguments: dispositional and situational. Milgram conducted his obedience experiments around the same time Hannah Arendt was covering Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem. Arendt coined the term “the banality of evil,” drawing on her previous book Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) to describe Eichmann not as a monster, but as an average bureaucrat swayed by situational factors to perform brutal acts. Likewise, Milgram embraced the heavy emphasis on situation rather than innate personality traits.

Although we believed that the obedience studies shed some light on human behavior that may be relevant to the Holocaust, what the results indicate and their relationship to the historical events are complicated, and explain only one piece of the puzzle. In small groups, we reflected on the film and material we’d read in advance. Some of the ideas that came up included:

More than half of Milgram’s subjects reached maximum voltage in one experimental condition, but obedience plummeted in other setups testing the proximity of accomplice to subject and subject to experimenter, one group reminded everyone. For Muller some of the most interesting aspects of Milgram’s work were the instances of non-obedience.

At the same time, even with subjects who continued on until the end, another group pointed out, protest didn’t necessarily lead to action. Some clearly felt bad, but pressed the buttons anyway. Did expressing concern make them feel better about themselves?

The film’s main subject, a man who pressed the maximum shock button three times, asked the experimenter outright who would take responsibility if anything happened to the accomplice. Several groups brought up how the subject’s concern for personal responsibility seemed to outweigh his concern for potential harm to the accomplice.

Finally, groups pointed out stark differences between Milgram’s experiments and the circumstances of the Holocaust. The experiments did not replicate a bureaucratic structure in which workers might feel obligated to act or face real consequences. In addition, the experiments did not reflect the dehumanization of Jews as victims of the Holocaust.

Left to our own devices, we in the journalism group later discussed the ethics of capturing the experiments on film and presenting the footage in a documentary. The standard practices around visual storytelling may have changed since the 1960s; releases were not always necessary at the time, one of our faculty leaders, Andie Tucher of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, explained.

However, using footage of subjects while comparing their behavior to that of Nazi perpetrators could have emotional repercussions beyond the anxiety subjects felt during the experiment. Milgram’s team kept their Holocaust hypothesis quiet while debriefing their subjects. The main subject in the film seemed oblivious to the experimenters’ interpretation of his actions.

The documentary portrayal of weak, vulnerable, or embarrassed victims raises other questions. “If someone’s in a documentary film,” Tucher said, “it can be and is shown potentially long after the circumstances have changed.”

Thorsten Wagner, the European director of FASPE, threw out some additional food for thought: there is no record of any capital punishment for someone who refused to participate in a mass crime, be it an SS man or any German. They may have lost face or gotten reprimanded, but they weren’t beaten or shot. Why, then, did they participate?

Perhaps the coming days will yield new facets of understanding to what Milgram alone could not explain.

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