Empathy and obedience: It's all in the execution

Empathy and obedience: It's all in the execution

50 years on, Stanley Milgram's obedience studies retain a peculiar allure. Rosie Jackson asks why we want to watch people squirm, and why we really do like doing what we're told.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      © Manya Fox

We like watching people in desperate dilemmas. In the 1988 film A Short Film About Killing, directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski, we are shown two murders of equal grossness. Both are implemented with considerable forethought and without hesitation: there’s the cold-blooded killer who strangles a repugnant taxi driver and bludgeons his head with a rock; and there’s the rabid, uniformed men who prepare the rope and execute the killer’s hanging. The dilemma exists not for the characters but for us, because neither death – the one sanctioned, the one criminal – is better or more justified than the other. There can be no cancelling out.

It’s a topical issue. In the same week that California's Proposition 34 – the anti-death penalty ballot initiative also known as Safe California – was narrowly defeated by a vote of 52.8% to 47.2%, an Amnesty International film called “Execution: Right or Wrong? You Decide” was screened throughout the US to thousands of people. According to the press release, “Select theaters across America will become execution chambers” as movie-goers watch documentary footage of life on death row. It is the only film ever to star a real condemned man (William Neal Moore spent 16 years on Death Row and was only 7 hours from the electric chair) a real warden, a real priest and a real (possibly) execution. It’s 25 years after 70% of the state’s voters approved the death penalty, but the population of California still teeters on the brink of indecision. Given the choice, it’s preferable to put evil on a pedestal, and make it dance where we can see it.

In an article called “Deregulating Death”, the Director of Stanford Criminal Justice Centre Robert Weisberg, likens the death penalty juror to the experiment subjects of Stanley Milgram, the Yale professor who famously shed light on the capacity of ordinary people to commit heinous crimes. In 1961, three months after the start of the Adolf Eichmann trial, Milgram began to measure the capacity of individuals to harm innocent parties when instructed to do so. The subject was assigned the role of “teacher” and an actor the role of “learner”, before the two were separated into different rooms both connected with a microphone and loudspeaker. The teacher was asked to read aloud a series of word pairs to which the learner responded with the push of a button. If the answer was wrong, the teacher would dispense a shock, which increased in voltage as the test continued. 65% of participants did not terminate the experiment – even though many were visibly distressed by the shouts of pain from the learner – and successfully went on to administer the final 450V.



This "Behavioral study of Obedience" was the first of many conducted by Milgram and prompted a stream of copycat experiments, both scientific and artistic. Public and private evils acquired pop status on the big and small screen: Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment in 1971; 2010 French documentary The Game of Death; a black and white film called “Obedience” shot by Milgram himself in May 1962 to document his findings; and, most recently, Compliance, written and directed by Craig Zobel, whose frank depiction of the systematic abuse of a fast food employee in the name of a fake authority traumatised audiences at New York and Sundance. Chillingly, it’s based on a true story.

A new book, “Behind the Shock Machine”, which focuses on Milgram’s professional agenda, as well as the personal histories of the study’s actor and volunteers, misses the point of the matter entirely. The specifics of the experiment are in fact the least interesting thing about it. What is compelling about the 1961 study is its elegant assertion of what has continuously been proved to be the case – that for many of us there is no line that we will not cross if given a good enough reason to do so. As Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s play A Man For All Seasons puts it: “The law is not a ‘light’ for you or any man to see by; the law is not an instrument of any kind…The law is a causeway upon which, so long as he keeps to it, a citizen may walk safely.”

What Milgram rightly points out, biased or not, is that the subject’s conflict “stems from the opposition of two deeply ingrained behaviour dispositions: firstly, the disposition not to harm other people, and secondly, the tendency to obey those whom we perceive to be legitimate authorities.” For most people, the more questionable the act, the stronger and more entrenched the authority must be to convince individuals to implement it. And it won’t be easy. As New York Times columnist David Brooks points out: “Nazi prison guards sometimes wept as they mowed down Jewish women and children, but they still did it.”


There is a difference between knowing a particular kind of behaviour is wrong, and feeling it is wrong, but we do not know where this distinction lies. What we do know is that daily life is a balance between fitting in, and doing what we believe is the right thing (wherever that impulse comes from). Whether any given person would follow Milgram’s experiment through to its logical conclusion, or not, simply depends on which of these impulses wins out.

As Craig Zobel incisively explains: “We can't be on guard all the time. In order to have a pleasant life, you have to be able to trust that people are who they say they are. And if you questioned everything you heard, you'd never get anything done. It's infinitely more efficient to follow a chosen leader and walk in lock step with a chosen tribe.” On the whole, we would rather surround ourselves with people who share our codes of behaviour than have our actions constantly questioned by others. In all cases, we have a tendency to take the path of least resistance.

For Milgram, this is largely dependent on the way we perceive our role in specific situations. Elaborating on the ‘agentic state theory’, he maintained that "the essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view themselves as the instrument for carrying out another person's wishes, and they therefore no longer see themselves as responsible for their actions. Once this critical shift of viewpoint has occurred in the person, all of the essential features of obedience follow". If you see yourself as a pawn, you will be a pawn.



Commonly, our resting mode is deferral to a superior, the institution, the house rules. It is only when a freak event blows up in our faces, unexpectedly, that we are forced to act for ourselves. We cannot defer. Unlike the slow burn of Milgram’s strain of obedience, where instructors whisper in your ear at every juncture, sometimes the immediacy of a situation knocks us out of line.

This immediacy and intimacy is key. When the person in pain is close to us we are far more likely to act. As Joan Didion argues in her essay on “wagon-train” morality and abandoning our loved ones to coyotes: “Except on the most primitive level – our loyalties to those we love – what could be more arrogant than to claim the primacy of personal conscience?” But do we act well, morally, kindly in the case of strangers? Sometimes, rarely, not always.

David Hume, who contradictorily maintained both that adopting the moral point of view often requires us to sympathise with the pain and suffering of distant strangers, and that our concern is limited to those in our close circle, said: “the minds of men are mirrors to one another” insofar as they “reflect each other’s emotions”. Indeed, social neuroscientists comparing neural activity when one feels pain and when one observes a close acquaintance in pain found similar firing patterns occurring.


Furthermore, in the closest bonds, mirroring is tangible. Parents actually mimic the facial expressions of their children as they register their pain. Hume goes on to say that “We sympathise more with persons contiguous to us, than with persons remote from us: With our acquaintance, than with strangers: With our countrymen, than with foreigners.”



Empathising with the suffering of friends or strangers actually recruits different patterns of brain activation. While witnessing a friend's pain activates the regions of the brain associated with firsthand experience, observing a stranger in pain activates brain regions associated with "mentalizing" - thinking about the mental states and intention of others. In order to empathise with strangers, we have to imagine ourselves in the position of someone close to them. And even Milgram’s experiments bear this out. In the experiment variation where the "learner's" physical immediacy was closest, where participants had to physically hold the "learner's" arm onto a shock plate, compliance decreased. Under that condition, only 30% of participants completed the experiment.

Of course empathy isn’t infallible – it results in all sorts of dubious judgements. All studies after Milgram needle us into getting the compliance point, when in many cases authority is not the greater evil. Yale Finance Professor Robert Shiller, author of Irrational Exuberance, argues that the Milgram experiment evidences deeply-ingrained trust of authority which isn’t misplaced: “[People] have learned that when experts tell them something is all right, it probably is, even if it does not seem so. (In fact, it is worth noting that in this case the experimenter was indeed correct: it was all right to continue giving the 'shocks' — even though most of the subjects did not suspect the reason.”



We have learnt not to trust our own judgement, which is perhaps why we like to shake ourselves up a bit, to watch a film about killing, again and again. For the viewer, what is the difference between art about violence and violent art? Filmed experiments and films about experiments? Performances, like Milgram’s, which overturn the dark damp side of the rock? The agenda is different but the reaction the same – varying levels of horror, disgust, empathy or detachment.

We might compare Milgram’s experiment with Andy Warhol’s electric chair, or the Discovery Channel’s Curiosity show How Evil Are You? or Herzog’s Into the Abyss? All are instances in art or life which satisfy our predilection for the dark side, which in the best cases startle and subvert, but which ultimately, leave us as cold and changeable as ever. Putting a flag on a thing, or chaining it up in the limelight, doesn’t give you power over it. But it does, if only for a moment, make it questionable.

Image credit: Manya Fox

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