WOULD YOU?  PROBABLY


             In the beginning, Stanley Milgram was worried about the Nazi

        problem.   He  doesn't worry much about the  Nazis  anymore.   He

        worries about you and me, and, perhaps, himself a little bit too.

             Stanley Milgram is a social psychologist, and when he  began

        his  career  at Yale University in 1960 he had a plan  to  prove,

        scientifically,  that  Germans are different.   The  Germans-are-

        different hypothesis has been used by historians, such as William

        L.  Shirer, to explain the systematic destruction of the Jews  by

        the Third Reich.  One madman could decide to destroy the Jews and

        even create a master plan for getting it done.  But to  implement

        it  on  the scale that Hitler did meant that thousands  of  other

        people  had to go along with the scheme and help to do the  work. 

        The Shirer thesis, which Milgram set out to test, is that Germans

        have  a basic character flaw which explains the whole thing,  and

        this  flaw is a readiness to obey authority without question,  no

        matter what outrageous acts the authority commands.

             The appealing thing about this theory is that it makes those

        of  us who are not Germans feel better about the whole  business. 

        Obviously, you and I are not Hitler, and it seems equally obvious

        that  we  would never do Hitler's dirty work for him.   But  now,

        because of Stanley Milgram, we are compelled to wonder.   Milgram

        developed a laboratory experiment which provided a systematic way

        to measure obedience.  His plan was to try it out in New Haven on

        Americans  and then go to Germany and try it out on Germans.   he

        was  strongly  motivated by scientific curiosity, but  there  was

        also  some moral content in his decision to pursue this  line  of

        research, which was in turn colored by his own Jewish background. 

        If  he could show that Germans are more obedient than  Americans,

        he  could then vary the conditions of the experiment and  try  to

        find  out  just what it is that makes some people  more  obedient

        than   others.   With  this  understanding,  the   world   might,

        conceivably, be just a little bit better.

             But he never took his experiment to Germany.  He never  took

        it any farther than Bridgeport.  The first finding, also the most

        unexpected  and disturbing finding, was that we Americans are  an

        obedient  people:  not  blindly  obedient,  and  not   blissfully

        obedient,  just  obedient.   "I found so  much  obedience,"  says

        Milgram softly, a little sadly, "I hardly saw the need for taking

        the experiment to Germany."

             There  is something of the theater director in Milgram,  and

        his  technique, which he learned from one of the old  masters  in

        experimental  psychology, Solomon Asch, is to stage a  play  with

        every   line  rehearsed,  every  prop  carefully  selected,   and

        everybody  an  actor except one person.  That one person  is  the

        subject of the experiment.  The subject, of course, does not know

        he  is  in a play.  he thinks he is in real life.  The  value  of

        this  technique is that the experimenter, as though he were  God,

        can  change  a  prop here, vary a line there,  and  see  how  the

        subject responds.  Milgram eventually had to change a lot of  the

        script just to get people to stop obeying.  They were obeying  so

        much,  the  experiment  wasn't working--it  was  like  trying  to

        measure oven temperature with a freezer thermometer.

             The  experiment worked like this:  If you were  an  innocent

        subject  in Milgram's melodrama, you read an ad in the  newspaper

        or  received  one  in  the mail  asking  for  volunteers  for  an

        educational experiment.  The job would take about an hour and pay

        $4.50.   So you make an appointment and go to an  old  Romanesque

        stone structure on High Street with the imposing name of the Yale

        Interaction  Laboratory.  It looks something like a  broadcasting

        studio.   Inside, you meet a young, crew-cut man in a  laboratory

        coat  who says he is Jack Williams, the experimenter.   There  is

        another  citizen, fiftyish, Irish face, an accountant,  a  little

        overweight,  and  very  mild and harmless  looking.   This  other

        citizen seems nervous and plays with his hat while the two of you

        sit in chairs side by side and are told that the $4.50 checks are

        yours  no matter what happens.  Then you listen to Jack  Williams

        explain the experiment.

             It  is  about  learning,  says Jack  Williams  in  a  quiet,

        knowledgeable  way.   Science  does  not  know  much  about   the

        conditions  under  which people learn and this experiment  is  to

        find out about negative reinforcement.  Negative reinforcement is

        getting  punished  when  you do something wrong,  as  opposed  to

        positive  reinforcement  which is getting rewarded  when  you  do

        something  right.   The negative reinforcement in  this  case  is

        electric  shock.   You notice a book on the  table,  titled,  The

        Teaching-Learning Process, and you assume that this has something

        to do with the experiment.

             Then Jack Williams takes two pieces of paper, puts them in a

        hat, and shakes them up.  One piece of paper is supposed to  say,

        "Teacher"  and the other, "Learner."  Draw one and you  will  see

        which  you  will be.  The milder looking  accountant  draws  one,

        holds it close to his vest like a poker player, looks at it,  and

        says, "Learner."  You look at yours.  It says, "Teacher."  You do

        not know hat the drawing is rigged, and both slips say "Teacher." 

        The experimenter beckons to the mild-mannered "learner."

             "Want  to  step right in here and have a seat,  please?"  he

        says.  "You can leave your coat on the back of that  chair...roll

        up  your  right sleeve, please.  Now what I want to do  is  strap

        down  your arms to avoid excessive movement on your  part  during

        the  experiment.   This  electrode  is  connected  to  the  shock

        generator in the next room.

             "And  this electrode paste," he says, squeezing  some  stuff

        out  of a plastic bottle and putting it on the man's arm, "is  to

        provide a good contact and to avoid a blister or burn.  Are there

        any questions now before we go into the next room?"

             You don't have any, but the strapped-in "learner" does.

             "I  do think I should say this," says the  learner.   "About

        two years ago, I was in the veterans' hospital...they detected  a

        heart  condition.   Nothing serious, but as long  as  I'm  having

        these shocks, how strong are they--how dangerous are they?"

             Williams, the experimenter, shakes his head casually.   "Oh,

        no,"  he  says.   "Although  they may  be  painful,  they're  not

        dangerous.  Anything else?"

             Nothing  else.  And so you play the game.  The game  is  for

        you to read a series of word pairs: for example, blue-girl, nice-

        day, fat-neck.  When you finish the list, you read just the first

        word  in each pair and then a multiple-choice list of four  other

        words, including the second word of the pair.  The learner,  from

        his remote, strapped-in position, pushes one of four switches  to

        indicate  which of the four answers he thinks is the  right  one. 

        If  he gets it right, nothing happens and you go on to  the  next

        one.   If  he gets it wrong, you push a switch  that  buzzes  and

        gives  him  an electric shock.  And then you go on  to  the  next

        word.   You start with 15 volts and increase the number of  volts

        by  15  for each wrong answer.  The control board  goes  from  15

        volts  on  one end to 450 volts on the other.  So that  you  know

        what  you are doing, you get a test shock yourself, at 45  volts. 

        It  hurts.   To further keep you aware of what you are  doing  to

        that man in there, the board has verbal descriptions of the shock

        levels,  ranging  from  "Slight Shock"  at  the  left-hand  side,

        through  "Intense Shock" in the middle to "Danger: Severe  Shock"

        toward  the far right.  Finally, at the very end, under 435-  and

        450-volt  switches,  there are three ambiguous X's.  If,  at  any

        point, you hesitate, Mr. Williams calmly tells you to go on.   If

        you still hesitate, he tells you again.

             Except for some terrifying details, which will be  explained

        in  a moment, this is the experiment.  The object is to find  the

        shock  level at which you disobey the experimenter and refuse  to

        pull the switch.

             When Stanley Milgram first wrote this script, he took it  to

        14 Yale psychology majors and asked them what they thought  would

        happen.   He put it this way:  Out of one hundred persons in  the

        teacher's  predicament,  how  would  their  break-off  points  be

        distributed along the 15- to 450-volt scale?  They thought a  few

        would  break  off very early, most would quit  someplace  in  the

        middle,  and a few would go all the way to the end.  The  highest

        estimate of the number out of 100 who would go all the way to the

        end was three.  Milgram then informally polled some of his fellow

        scholars in the psychology department.  They agreed that very few

        would go to the end.  Milgram thought so too.

             "I'll tell you quite frankly," he says, "before I began this

        experiment, before any shock generator was built, I thought  that

        most  people  would break off at 'Strong Shock' or  'Very  Strong

        Shock.'   You  would get only a very, very  small  proportion  of

        people  going  out to the end of the shock  generator,  and  they

        would constitute a pathological fringe."

             In  his  pilot experiments, Milgram used  Yale  students  as

        subjects.   Each of them pushed the shock switches, one  by  one,

        all the way to the end of the board.

             So  he rewrote the script to include some protests from  the

        learner.  At first, they were mild, gentlemanly, Yalie  protests,

        but "it didn't seem to have as much effect as I thought it  would

        or   should,"   Milgram  recalls.   "So  we  had   more   violent

        protestation on the part of the person getting the shock.  All of

        the time, of course, what we were trying to do was not to  create

        a  macabre situation, but simply to generate  disobedience.   And

        that  was  one  of  the first findings.   This  was  not  only  a

        technical  deficiency  of  the experiment,  that  we  didn't  get

        disobedience.   It really was the first finding:  that  obedience

        would  be  much  greater  than we had assumed  it  would  be  and

        disobedience would be much more difficult than we had assumed."

             As  it turned out, the situation did become rather  macabre. 

        The only meaningful way to generate disobedience was to have  the

        victim  protest  with great anguish, noise, and  vehemence.   The

        protests  were tape-recorded so that all the teachers  ordinarily

        would  hear the same sounds and nuances, and they started with  a

        grunt at 75 volts, proceeded through a "Hey, that really  hurts,"

        at 125 volts, got desperate with, "I can't stand the pain,  don't

        do  that," at 180 volts, reached complaints of heart  trouble  at

        195,  an agonized scream at 285, a refusal to answer at 315,  and

        only heart-rending, ominous silence after that.

             Still,  65  percent  of the  subjects,  20-  to  50-year-old

        American  males,  everyday,  ordinary people, like  you  and  me,

        obediently kept pushing those levers in the belief that they were

        shocking  the mild-mannered learner, whose name was Mr.  Wallace,

        and  who  was  chosen  for  the  role  because  of  his  innocent

        appearance, all the way up to 450 volts.

             Milgram  was now getting enough disobedience so that he  had

        something  he  could  measure.  The next step  was  to  vary  the

        circumstances   to  see  what  would  encourage   or   discourage

        obedience.   There  seemed  very  little  left  in  the  way   of

        discouragement.   The victim was already screaming at the top  of

        his  lungs  and  feigning  a  heart  attack.   So  whatever   new

        impediment  to obedience reached the brain of the subject had  to

        travel by some route other than the ear.  Milgram thought of one.

             He  put the learner in the same room with the  teacher.   He

        stopped strapping the learner's hand down.  He rewrote the script

        so  that  at 150 volts the learner took his hand  off  the  shock

        plate  and  declared that he wanted out of  the  experiment.   He

        rewrote  the script some more so that the experimenter then  told

        the  teacher to grasp the learner's hand and physically force  it

        down  on  the  plate to give Mr. Wallace  his  unwanted  electric


             "I had the feeling that very few people would go on a t that

        point, if any," Milgram says.  "I thought that would be the limit

        of obedience that you would find in the laboratory."

             It wasn't.

             Although  seven  years  have  now  gone  by,  Milgram  still

        remembers  the  first person to walk into the laboratory  in  the

        newly  rewritten  script.  He was a construction worker,  a  very

        short man.  "He was so small," says Milgram, "that when he sat on

        the chair in front of the shock generator, his feet didn't  reach

        the  floor.  When the experimenter told him to push the  victim's

        hand down and give the shock, he turned to the experimenter,  and

        he  turned to the victim, his elbow went up, he fell down on  the

        hand  of the victim, his feet kind of tugged to one side, and  he

        said, 'Like this, boss?' Zzumph!"

             The  experiment was played out to its bitter  end.   Milgram

        tried  it  with 40 different subjects.  And 30  percent  of  them

        obeyed the experimenter and kept on obeying.

             "The protests of the victim were strong and vehement, he was

        screaming his guts out, he refused to participate, and you had to

        physically struggle with him in order to get his hand down on the

        shock generator," Milgram remembers.  But 12 our of 40 did it.

             Milgram  took  his  experiment out of  New  Haven.   Not  to

        Germany,  just 20 miles down the road to Bridgeport.   Maybe,  he

        reasoned, the people obeyed because of the prestigious setting of

        Yale  University.  If they couldn't trust a learning center  that

        had  been there for two centuries, whom could they trust?  So  he

        moved the experiment to an untrustworthy setting.

             The  new  setting was a suite of three rooms in  a  run-down

        office  building  in Bridgeport.  The only identification  was  a

        sign with a fictitious name: "Research Associates of Bridgeport." 

        Questions  about professional connections got only vague  answers

        about "research for industry."

             Obedience  was less in Bridgeport.  Forty-eight  percent  of

        the subjects stayed for the maximum shock, compared to 65 percent

        at Yale.  But this was enough to prove that far more than  Yale's

        prestige was behind the obedient behavior.

             For  more  than seven years now, Stanley  Milgram  has  been

        trying  to  figure out what makes ordinary American  citizens  so

        obedient.  The most obvious answer--that people are mean,  nasty,

        brutish,  and  sadistic--won't  do.  The subjects  who  gave  the

        shocks  to Mr. Wallace to the end of the board did not enjoy  it. 

        They  groaned,  protested, fidgeted, argued, and in  some  cases,

        were seized by fits of nervous, agitated giggling.

             "They  even try to get out of it," says Milgram,  "but  they

        are somehow engaged in something from which they cannot  liberate

        themselves.   They are locked into a structure, and they  do  not

        have the skills or inner resources to disengage themselves."

             Milgram,  because  he mistakenly had assumed that  he  would

        have  trouble  getting  people to obey the orders  to  shock  Mr.

        Wallace,  went  to  a  lot  of  trouble  to  create  a  realistic


             There  was  crew-cut Jack Williams and his  gray  laboratory

        coat.   Not white, which might denote a medical  technician,  but

        ambiguously  authoritative gray.  Then there was the book on  the

        table,  and  the  other appurtenances  of  the  laboratory  which

        emitted the silent message that things were being performed  here

        in the name of science, and were therefore great and good.

             But  the nicest touch of all was the shock generator.   When

        Milgram  started out, he had only a $300 grant from  the  Higging

        Fund  of Yale University.  Later he got more ample  support  from

        the  National Science Foundation, but in the beginning he had  to

        create this authentic-looking machine with very scarce  resources

        except  for  his  own imagination.  So he went to  New  York  and

        roamed  around  the electronic shops until he found  some  little

        black switches at Lafayette Radio for a dollar apiece.  He bought

        30  of them.  The generator was a metal box, about the size of  a

        small footlocker, and he drilled the 30 holes for the 30 switches

        himself in a Yale machine shop.  But the fine detail was left  to

        professional  industrial  engravers.   So  he  ended  up  with  a

        splendid-looking control panel dominated by the row of  switches,

        each labeled with its voltage, and each having its own red  light

        that  flashed  on  when  the switch  was  pulled.   Other  things

        happened when a switch was pulled.  Besides the zzumphing  noise,

        a blue light labeled "voltage energizer" went on, and a needle on

        a  dial  labeled "voltage" flicked from left  to  right.   Relays

        inside  the box clicked.  Finally, in the upper left-hand  corner

        of  the control panel was this inscription, engraved  in  precise

        block letters:

                            SHOCK GENERATOR TYPE ZLB

                            DYSON INSTRUMENT COMPANY

                                 WALTHAM, MASS.

                          OUTPUT: 15 VOLTS - 450 VOLTS

             One day a man from the Lehigh Valley Electronics Company  of

        Pennsylvania  was passing through the laboratory, and he  stopped

        to admire the shock generator.

             "This is a very fine shock generator," he said.  "But who is

        this Dyson Instrument Company?" Milgram felt proud at that, since

        Dyson  Instrument  Company existed only in the  recesses  of  his


             When you consider the seeming authenticity of the situation,

        you  can appreciate the agony some of the subjects went  through. 

        It  was  pure conflict.  As Milgram, explains  to  his  students,

        "When a parent says, 'Don't strike old ladies,' you are  learning

        two  things:  the  content  and also  to  obey  authority.   This

        experiment creates conflict between the two elements.

             Here is a partial transcription from one of the experiments. 

        The naive "teacher is a heavyset, worried-looking man with prema-

        turely  gray hair.  He is wearing a polo shirt.  He is  very  po-

        lite.  He has just pushed the 180-volt lever.  A hidden camera is

        recording the performance.

             Learner (who, from the teacher's point of view is heard  but

        not seen, an offstage voice): Ow, I can't stand the pain.   Don't

        do that....

             Teacher (pivoting around in his chair and shaking his head):

        I can't stand it.  I'm not going to kill that man in there.   You

        hear him hollering?

             Experimenter:  As  I  told you before,  the  shocks  may  be

        painful, but--

             Teacher:  But  he's hollering.  He can't stand  it.   What's

        going to happen to him?

             Experimenter  (his  voice is patient,  matter-of-fact):  The

        experiment requires that you continue, Teacher.

             Teacher:  Aaah, but, uh, I'm not going to get that man  sick

        in there...know what I mean?

             Experimenter:  Whether the learner likes it or not, we  must

        go on, through all the word pairs.

             Teacher: I refuse to take the responsibility.  He's in there


             Experimenter:  It's absolutely essential that you  continue,


             Teacher  (indicating the unused question): There's too  many

        left here, I mean, Geez, if he gets them wrong, there's too  many

        of  them left.  I mean who's going to take the responsibility  if

        anything happens to that gentleman?

             Experimenter:  I'm responsible for anything that happens  to

        him.  Continue please.

             Teacher:  All  right.  (Consults list of words.)   The  next

        one's  "Slow--walk,  truck, dance, music."  Answer,  please.   (A

        buzzing  sound  indicates the learner has signaled  his  answer.) 

        Wrong.  A hundred and ninety-five volts.  "Dance."  (Zzumph!)

             Learner:  Let  me  out of here.  My  heart's  bothering  me! 

        (Teacher looks at experimenter.)

             Experimenter: Continue, please.

             Learner  (screaming): Let me out of here, you have no  right

        to  keep  me here.  Let me out of here, let me  out,  my  heart's

        bothering  me, let me out!  (Teacher shakes head, pats the  table


             Teacher: You see, he's hollering.  Hear that?  Gee, I  don't


             Experimenter:  The experiment requires...

             Teacher   (interrupting):  I  know  it  does,  sir,  but   I

        mean--huuh!  He don't know what he's getting in for.  He's up  to

        195  volts!  (Experiment continues through 210 volts, 225  volts,

        240  volts,  255 volts, 270 volts, delivered to the  man  in  the

        electric chair, at which point the teacher, with evident  relief,

        runs out of the word-pair questions.)

             Experimenter:  You'll  have to go back to the  beginning  of

        that  page and go through them again until he's learned them  all


             Teacher: Aw, no.  I'm not going to kill that man.  You  mean

        I've  got  to  keep  going up with the  scale.   No,  sir.   He's

        hollering in there.  I'm not going to give him 450 volts.

             Experimenter: The experiment requires that you go on.

             Teacher: I know it does, but that man is hollering in there,


             Experimenter  (same matter-of-fact tone): As I said  before,

        although the shocks may be painful...

             Teacher  (interrupting):  Awwww.   He--he--he's  yelling  in


             Experimenter:  Start with "Blue," please, at the top of  the

        page.  Continue, please, Teacher.  Just go ahead.

             Teacher (concentrating intently on list of words in front of

        him, as if to shut everything else out): "Blue--boy, girl, grass,

        hat."  (Buzz indicates answer.)  Correct. "Night--day, sky,  job,

        chair."  (Buzz)  Wrong.  The answer is "day."   Two  hundred  and

        eighty-five volts. (Zzumph!)

             Learner: Ohhhuhhoohhh!

             Experimenter: Continue, please.

             Teacher:  "Fat--man,  lady,  tub,  neck."   Answer,  please.

        (Buzz)  Wrong.   The  answer is  "neck."   Three  hundred  volts.


             Learner:  Ohhh.   I absolutely refuse to  answer  any  more. 

        (Shouting urgently, now)  Let me out of here.  You can't hold  me

        here.  Get me out.  Get--me--out--of--here.

             Experimenter:  Continue.  The next word is "green," please.

             Teacher: "Green--grass, hat, ink, apple."  (Nothing happens. 

        No answering buzz.  Just gloomy silence.)

             Teacher: I don't think he is going to answer.

             Experimenter: If the learner doesn't answer in a  reasonable

        time, about four or five seconds, consider the answer wrong.  And

        follow the same procedures you have been doing for wrong answers. 

        Say  "Wrong,"  tell  him  the  number  of  volts,  give  him  the

        punishment, read him the correct answer.  Continue, please.

             Teacher:  "Green--grass, hat, ink, apple."  Answer,  please. 

        (More silence.  Teacher just sits there.)

             Experimenter: Go on with the procedure, please, Teacher.

             Teacher:  Three  hundred and fifteen volts.  The  answer  is

        "ink."  (Zzumph!)

             Learner: Ohh.  Ooohh.

             Teacher (relieved to hear response): Next one....

             Learner: I absolutely refuse to answer.

             Teacher:  You got to.  You get a shock if you don't  answer. 

        (Experiment  continues  with  learner  refusing  to  answer,  and

        finally,  failing  even  to grunt or groan.  At  375  volts,  the

        teacher  stands  up.  Has he had enough?  Will he break  off  the

        experiment?  Will he disobey?)

             Teacher:  I  think something's happened to  that  fellow  in

        there.  I don't get no answer.  He was hollering at less voltage. 

        Can't you check in and see if he's all right, please?

             Experimenter  (same detached calm): Not once we've  started. 

        Please continue, Teacher.

             Teacher (sits down, sighs deeply): "Cool--day, shade, water,

        paint."   Answer, please.  Are you all right in there?   Are  you

        all right?

             Experimenter:  Please continue, Teacher.  Continue,  please. 

        (Teacher pushes lever.  Zzumph!)

             Teacher   (swiveling  around  in  his  chair):   Something's

        happened  to  that  man in there.  (Swiveling  back)   Next  one. 

        "Low--dollar,  necklace,  moon, paint."  (Turning  around  again)

        Something's  happened to that man in there.  You better check  in

        on him, sir.  He won't answer or nothing.

             Experimenter: Continue.  Go on, please.

             Teacher: You accept all responsibility.

             Experimenter: The responsibility is mine.  Correct.   Please

        go  on.   (Teacher returns to his list,  starts  running  through

        words  as  rapidly  as he can read them,  works  through  to  450


             Teacher: That's that.

             Experimenter:  Continue using the last switch on the  board,

        please.  The 450 switch for each wrong answer.  Continue please.

             Teacher: But I don't get no anything!

             Experimenter: Please continue.  The next word is "white."

             Teacher: Don't you think you should look in on him, please.

             Experimenter: Not once we've started the experiment.

             Teacher: But what if something has happened to the man?

             Experimenter: The experiment requires that you continue.  Go

        on, please.

             Teacher: Don't the man's health mean anything?

             Experimenter: Whether the learner likes it or not...

             Teacher:  What if he's dead in there?  (Gestures toward  the

        room with the electric chair.)  I mean, he told me he can't stand

        the shock, sir.  I don't mean to be rude, but I think you  should

        look in on him.  All you have to do is look in the door.  I don't

        get  no answer, no noise.  Something might have happened  to  the

        gentleman in there, sir.

             Experimenter: We must continue.  Go on, please.

             Teacher: You mean keep giving him what?  Four hundred  fifty

        volts, what he's got now?

             Experimenter:  That's correct.  Continue.  The next word  is


             Teacher (now at a furious pace): "White--cloud, horse, rock,

        house."  Answer please.  The answer is "horse." Four hundred  and

        fifty  volts.  (Zzumph!)  Next word, "Bag--paint,  music,  clown,

        girl."   The  answer is "paint."  Four hundred and  fifty  volts. 

        (Zzumph!)  Next work is "Short--sentence, movie..."

             Experimenter: Excuse me, Teacher.  We'll have to discontinue

        the experiment.

             (Enter Milgram from camera's left. He has been watching from

        behind on-way glass.)

             Milgram:  I'd  like to ask you a  few  questions.   (Slowly,

        patiently,  he dehoaxes the teacher, telling him that the  shocks

        and screams were not real.)

             Teacher: You mean he wasn't getting nothing?  Well, I'm glad

        to hear that.  I was getting upset there.  I was getting ready to

        walk out.

             (Finally, to make sure there are no hard feelings, friendly,

        harmless  Mr.  Wallace comes out in coat and tie.   Gives  jovial

        greeting.   Friendly  reconciliation  takes  place.    Experiment



             Subjects  in the experiment were not asked to give the  450-

        volt  shock  more  than three times.  By  that  time,  it  seemed

        evident  that  they  would go on indefinitely.   "No  one,"  says

        Milgram,  "who got within five shocks of the end ever broke  off. 

        By that point, he has resolved the conflict."

             Why  do  so  many people resolve the conflict  in  favor  of


             Milgram's theory assumes that people behave in two different

        operating modes as different as ice and water.  He does not  rely

        on Freud or sex or toilet-training hang-ups for this theory.  All

        he  says  is that ordinarily we operate in a state  of  autonomy,

        which  means we pretty much have and assert control over what  we

        do.  But in certain circumstances, we operate under what  Milgram

        calls a state of agency (after agent, n... one who acts for or in

        the  place  of  another by authority from him;  a  substitute;  a

        deputy.--Webster's  Collegiate Dictionary).  A state of  agency,

        to Milgram, is nothing more than a frame of mind.

             "There's  nothing bad about it, there's nothing  good  about

        it," he says.  "It's a natural circumstance of living with  other

        people.  I think of a state of agency as a real transformation of

        a person; if a person has different properties when he's in  that

        state, just as water can turn to ice under certain conditions  of

        temperature,  a person can move to the state of mind that I  call

        agency--the  critical  thing  is that you  see  yourself  as  the

        instrument  of the execution of another person's wishes.  You  do

        not  see  yourself  as acting on your own.  And  there's  a  real

        transformation, a real change of properties of the person."

             To  achieve this change you have to be in a situation  where

        there seems to be a ruling authority whose commands are  relevant

        to  some  legitimate  purpose;  the  authority's  power  is   not


             But  situations  can  be and have been  structured  to  make

        people  do unusual things, and not just in Milgram's  laboratory. 

        The  reason, says Milgram, is that no action, in and  of  itself,

        contains meaning.

             "The  meaning  always  depends on  your  definition  of  the

        situation.   Take  an  action like killing  another  person.   It

        sounds bad.

             "But  then  we say the other person was about to  destroy  a

        hundred  children, and the only way to stop him was to kill  him. 

        Well, that sounds good.

             "Or, you take destroying your own life.  It sounds very bad. 

        Yet, in the Second World War, thousands of persons thought it was

        a good thing to destroy your own life.  It was set in the  proper

        context.   You sipped some saki from a whistling cup,  recited  a

        few  haiku.  You said, 'May my death be as clean and as quick  as

        the  shattering of crystal.'  And it almost seemed like  a  good,

        noble thing to do, to crash your kamikaze plane into an  aircraft

        carrier.   But  the  main thing was, the  definition  of  what  a

        kamikaze  pilot  was doing had been determined  by  the  relevant

        authority.  Now once you are in a state of agency, you allow  the

        authority  to  determine, to define what the situation  is.   The

        meaning of your action is altered."

             So  for most subjects in Milgrim's  laboratory  experiments,

        the  act of giving Mr. Wallace his painful shock  was  necessary,

        even though unpleasant, and besides they were doing it on  behalf

        of somebody else and it was for science.  There was still  strain

        and  conflict,  of  course.  Most people resolved  it  by  grimly

        sticking to their task and obeying.  But some broke out.  Milgram

        tried varying the conditions of the experiment to see what  would

        help break people out of their state of agency.

             "The  results, as seen and felt in the laboratory,"  he  has

        written, "are disturbing.  They raise the possibility that  human

        nature,  or more specifically the kind of character  produced  in

        American democratic society, cannot be counted on to insulate its

        citizens  from brutality and inhumane treatment at the  direction

        of  malevolent authority.  A substantial proportion of people  do

        what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the  act

        and  without limitation of conscience, so long as  they  perceive

        that the command comes from a legitimate authority.  If, in  this

        study, an anonymous experimenter can successfully command  adults

        to  subdue  a 50-year-old man and force on him  painful  electric

        shocks against his protest, one can only wonder what  government,

        with  its vastly greater authority and prestige, can  command  of

        its subjects."

             This  is a nice statement, but it falls short of summing  up

        the  full  meaning of Milgram's work.  It leaves  some  questions

        still unanswered. 

             The  first question is this:  Should we really be  surprised

        and alarmed that people obey?  Wouldn't it be even more  alarming

        if  they  all refused to obey?  Without obedience to  a  relevant

        ruling authority there could not be a civil society.  An  without

        a civil society, as Thomas Hobbes pointed out in the  seventeenth

        century,  we  would  live in a condition of war,  "of  every  man

        against  every  other man," and life would  be  "solitary,  poor,

        nasty, brutish and short."

             In  the middle of one of Stanley Milgram's lectures at  CUNY

        recently, some miniskirted undergraduates started whispering  and

        giggling  in the back of the room.  He told them to cut  it  out. 

        Since he was the relevant authority in that time and that  place,

        they obeyed, and most people in the room were glad that they  had


             This  was not, of course, a conflict situation.  Nothing  in

        the  coeds' social upbringing made it a matter of conscience  for

        them  to  whisper and giggle.  But a case can be made that  in  a

        conflict  situation it is all the more important to  obey.   Take

        the  case of war, for example.  Would we really want a  situation

        in  which  every participant in a war, direct  or  indirect--from

        front-line soldiers to the people who sell coffee and  cigarettes

        to   employees   at  the  Concertina   barbed-wire   factory   in

        Kansas--stops and consults his conscience before each action?  It

        is  asking for an awful lot of mental strain and anguish from  an

        awful lot of people.  The value of having civil order is that one

        can do his duty, or whatever interests him, or whatever seems  to

        benefit  him  at the moment, and leave the agonizing  to  others. 

        When  Francis  Gary Powers was being tried by a  Soviet  military

        tribunal  after  his U-2 spy plane was shot down,  the  presiding

        judge  asked  if he had thought about the  possibility  that  his

        flight might have provoked a war.  Powers replied with  Hobbesian

        clarity:  "The people who sent me should think of  these  things. 

        My  job  was  to  carry out orders.  I do not  think  it  was  my

        responsibility to make such decisions."

             It  was  not his responsibility.  And it is  quite  possible

        that  if  everyone  felt responsible for  each  of  the  ultimate

        consequences  of his own tiny contribution to complex  chains  of

        events,  then  society  simply would not  work.   Milgram,  fully

        conscious  of the moral and social implications of his  research,

        believes  that people should feel responsible for their  actions. 

        If  someone else had invented the experiment, and if he had  been

        the naive subject, he feels certain that he would have been among

        the disobedient minority.

             "There  is  no  very  good solution  to  this,"  he  admits,

        thoughtfully.   "To simply and categorically say that  you  won't

        obey authority may resolve your personal conflict, but it creates

        more  problems for society which may be more serious in the  long

        run.  But I have no doubt that to disobey is the proper thing  to

        do in this [the laboratory] situation.  It is the only reasonable

        value judgment to make."

             The  conflict between the need to obey the  relevant  ruling

        authority and the need to follow your conscience becomes sharpest

        if  you  insist on living by an ethical system based on  a  rigid

        code--a  code  that seeks to answer all questions in  advance  of

        their  being  raised.   Code ethics cannot  solve  the  obedience

        problem.   Stanley Milgram seems to be a situation ethicist,  and

        situation  ethics does offer a way out: When you  feel  conflict,

        you  examine  the  situation and then make  a  choice  among  the

        competing  evils.   You may act with a presumption  in  favor  of

        obedience,  but  reserve the possibility that  you  will  disobey

        whenever  obedience demands a flagrant and outrageous affront  to

        conscience.   This, by the way, is the philosophical position  of

        many  who  resist the draft.  In World War II,  they  would  have

        fought.   Vietnam  is  a different,  an  outrageously  different,


             Life can be difficult for the situation ethicist, because he

        does not see the world in straight lines, while the social system

        too  often assumes such a God-given, squared-off  structure.   If

        your  moral code includes an injunction against all war, you  may

        be  deferred as a conscientious objector.  If you  merely  oppose

        this particular war, you may not be deferred.

             Stanley  Milgram  has his problems, too.  He  believes  that

        in  the  laboratory  situation, he would  not  have  shocked  Mr.

        Wallace.   His professional critics reply that in  his  real-life

        situation he has done the equivalent.  he has placed innocent and

        naive  subjects  under  great emotional strain  and  pressure  in

        selfish  obedience  to his quest for knowledge.  When  you  raise

        this  issue with Milgram, he has an answer ready.  There  is,  he

        explains  patiently,  a  critical difference  between  his  naive

        subjects  and  the  man in the electric chair.  The  man  in  the

        electric  chair (in the mind of the naive subject)  is  helpless,

        strapped in.  But the naive subject is free to go at any time.

             Immediately  after  he  offers  this  distinction,   Milgram

        anticipates the objection.

             "It's  quite  true,"  he  says,  "that  this  is  almost   a

        philosophic  position, because we have learned that  some  people

        are  psychologically  incapable of disengaging  themselves.   But

        that doesn't relieve them of the moral responsibility."

             The  parallel  is  exquisite.   "The  tension  problem   was

        unexpected," says Milgram in his defense.  But he went on anyway. 

        The naive subjects didn't expect the screaming protests from  the

        strapped-in learner.  But they went on.

             "I  had  to make a judgment," says Milgram.  "I had  to  ask

        myself, was this harming the person or not?  My judgment is  that

        it  was  not.   Even in the extreme cases, I  wouldn't  say  that

        permanent damage results."

             Sound   familiar?   "The  shocks  may  be   painful,"    the

        experimenter kept saying, "but they're not dangerous."

             After the series of experiments was completed, Milgram  sent

        a  report  of the results to his subjects  and  a  questionnaire,

        asking  whether  they  were glad or sorry to  have  been  in  the

        experiment.  Eighty-three and seven-tenths percent said they were

        glad  and  only 1.3 percent were sorry; 15 percent  were  neither

        sorry  nor glad.  However, Milgram could not be sure at the  time

        of the experiment that only 1.3 percent would be sorry.

             Kurt  Vonnegut,  Jr., put one paragraph in  the  preface  to

        Mother  Night, in 1966, which pretty much says it for the  people

        with  their fingers on the shock-generator switches, for you  and

        me,  and maybe even for Milgram.  "If I'd been born in  Germany," 

        Vonnegut said, "I suppose I would have been a Nazi, bopping  Jews

        and  gypsies  and  Poles around, leaving boots  sticking  out  of

        snowbanks,  warming myself with my sweetly virtuous insides.   So

        it goes.

             Just  so.  One thing happened to Milgram back in  New  Haven

        during  the days of the experiment was that he kept running  into

        people he'd watched from behind the one-way glass.  It gave him a

        funny  feeling,  seeing those people going about  their  everyday

        business  in  New  Haven and knowing what they would  do  to  Mr.

        Wallace if ordered to.  Now that his research results are in  and

        you've thought about it, you can get this funny feeling too.  You

        don't need one-way glass.  A glance in your own mirror may  serve

        just as well.


        "If  Hitler  Asked  You to Electrocute  a  Stranger,  Would  You?

        Probably" by Philip Meyer, from Esquire magazine.  Copyright 1970

        by Esquire, Inc.