A Suspicious Legend about the Milgram Experiment

Pessimists about human nature who want their suspicions confirmed in a laboratory setting can, and often do, cite Stanley Milgram’s investigation into the weakness of conscience in the face of authority:

His subjects were American college students. The subjects were told that they were taking part in a study of learning. One student posed as the learner (but was really an actor working for Milgram), while the real student subject was given a button to push and was told that he was to push it whenever the “learner” made a mistake. The subject was told that by pushing the button he would give the learner an electric shock. Participants were led to believe that the experimenter, by moving different switches could increase the level of the electric shock that would be delivered to the “learner” when the subject pressed the button. The learner was strapped to a chair in the next room and acted as if he was being shocked when the subject pressed the button. There were 30 switches ranging from 15 to 450 volts. At 75 volts the learner grunted, at 120 he began to protest, and 150 he demanded to be released from the experiment. At 285 volts the learner began to scream and shriek. And this screaming and shrieking continued up the to maximum level of 450 volts with the switch that was marked “Danger — Severe shock — 450 volts.”

Milgram found that of his 40 subjects, 26 continued all the way up to the last shock level on the generator. Sometimes they hesitated, but the experimenter just firmly told them to continue, and most of them did, even though the “learner” was screaming in agony. This was at Yale. Not believing the results of Milgram’s study, another psychology professor, David Rosenhan repeated the experiment at Princeton. There 80% of his subjects were fully obedient.

Naturally in the book Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century, which I reviewed briefly , this study is discussed. But added is a detail I’d never heard before: In David Rosenhan’s attempt at Princeton to replicate Milgram’s experiment, there was one student who not only was in the minority of students who refused to ratchet up the dial to 450 volts — this student wasn’t even willing to give the first shock.

That student was Ronald Ridenhour. Ridenhour had come up earlier in the book during a discussion of the My Lai massacre, because Ridenhour was the one who blew the whistle. He wasn’t there at the massacre, but he knew soldiers who had been and who had told him about what had gone on. He conducted interviews and spent months, independently, investigating what had happened, and then reported his detailed findings to the US government, which began its own investigation. He said later:

[C]ontrary to the vision that the military has of Charlie Company, that they were poorly disciplined, I think that what occurred at My Lai shows that they were highly disciplined, that they, in fact carried out orders that were against their grain, and that they, many of them, felt were wrong. They carried out those orders anyway, most of them. And that shows to me that they were disciplined rather than ill disciplined. The ill-disciplined theory comes about with part of the bogus notion that this was an aberration, something that just sort of occurred spontaneously. It didn’t occur spontaneously, it was part of a military operation, it was a plan. And they followed their orders. Should they have fought and not followed their orders? Well, there were probably ten or twelve there that refused to participate and, yeah, they shouldn’t have followed those orders.

He later concluded that there were “only an extraordinary few people who had the presence of mind and the strength of their own character that would see them through.”

The extraordinary few somehow did withstand it. But we shouldn’t — our society shouldn’t be structured, so that only the extraordinary few can conduct themselves in a moral fashion.

In , Randy Fertel left a comment here in which he wrote: “I was a friend of Ron Ridenhour before his death in New Orleans in . With the Nation Institute, I co-sponsor the Ridenhour Prizes for Courageous Truth-Telling. All of this I offer as my bona fides when I say that it is not true, it is an urban legend that Ron Ridenhour participated in the Milgram experiment or its recreation at Princeton.”

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