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Published in Praxis 14.


The Milgram Experiment

AUDC (Kazys Varnelis and Robert Sumrell)

Architecture defines itself as a discipline operating at the intersection of science and art, uniting left brain and right brain. On the surface, it seems that the scientific method and art describe opposite ends of human intelligence; the former is logical, reproducible, hard, the latter is emotional, unique, and soft. But perhaps this dialectic that architects exploit is really just a story we tell ourselves ? After all, there are many examples of contemporary art that are based on technical achievement and scientific innovation. and the most successful scientists are also great storytellers, illustrating their hypotheses with captivating anecdotes to make them accessible to the public. Ask a school child about famous scientific experiments and they well tell you about the apple falling on Newton’s head or Archimedes yelling “Eureka!” when his tub overflowed. More recently, we’ve been confronted with news that experimentation may not be quite so solid as it has claimed. Complex methods of experimentation on complex entities—such as humans, plants, and animals—produces results that prove hard, even impossible to verify. In medical experimentation, drugs that test as effective in the laboratory wind up with results comparable to placebos. Frequently, its not that the drugs prove ineffective, its that a mere sugar pill produces similar results.

In the early 1960s, social psychologist Stanley Milgram set out to investigate how the processes of experimentation itself—the authority individuals invest in scientists, the means by which procedures are followed and instructions are given, and even the architectural setting of an experiment, influenced the behavior of experimental subjects.

In his 1974 book on this study, which became known as the Obedience to Authority Experiment or even the Milgram Experiment, Milgram claimed he was inspired by the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jersalem, a lieutenant colonel in the SS and one of the organizers of the Holocaust. Struck by Hannah Arendt’s conclusion in her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem that the SS officer wasn’t a monster but rather a bureaucrat doing his job, Milgram concluded that “Though such prescriptions as ‘Thou shalt not kill’ occupy a preeminent place in the moral order, they do not occupy a correspondingly intractable position in human psychic structure. A few changes in newspaper headlines, a call from the draft board, orders from a man with epaulets, and men are led to kill with little difficulty.” Milgram hypothesized that obedience to authority could as effectively strip moral principles from individuals in the United States of the 1960s as in Nazi Germany.

Milgram had completed his Ph.D. at Harvard on the cross-cultural aspects of conformity in an experimental setting and, while completing his dissertion, worked for psychologist Solomon Asch, editing a set of experiments on conformity by Asch into a book. Asch’s experiments established a structure that Milgram would adopt for his own experiment: a single subject is told he will participate within a group of subjects who are actually actors; the group is shown a card with a drawing of a line and then another card with a drawing of three lines. When asked to identify which line on the card with three lines matched the first card with a single line drawn on it, the actors all answer incorrectly but in agreement and in opposition to the participant. Asch’s results suggested that the peer pressure played a significant role, with 75% of the subjects answering at least one question incorrectly. Milgram saw an opportunity to move the exercise beyond mere academic and logical disagreements, making the experience more physical and engaging:

I was trying to think of a way to make Asch’s conformity experiment more humanly significant. I was dissatisfied that the test of conformity was judgments about lines. I wondered whether groups could pressure a person into performing an act whose human import was more readily apparent, perhaps behaving aggressively toward another person, say by administering increasingly severe shocks to him. But to study the group effect….you’d have to know how the subject performed without any group pressure. At that instant my thought shifted, zeroing in on the experimental control. Just how far would a person go under the experimenter’s orders?

The key for Milgram was human experience, “The important task, from the standpoint of a psychological study of obedience, is to be able to take conceptions of authority and translate them into personal experience. It is one thing to talk in abstract terms about the respective rights of the individual and of authority; it is quite another to examine a moral choice in a real situation.” Obedience, Milgram observed, is nothing less than “the psychological mechanism that links individual action to political purpose.”

Milgram solicited volunteers through a set of ads in the New Haven Register as well as through phone calls to individuals randomly chosen from the white pages and asked them to volunteer in an experiment purportedly about learning. Individuals were almost always male, between the ages of 20 and 50, but nevertheless chosen to reflect diverse socioeconomic and professional backgrounds. Greeted by John Williams, a thirty-one year old high school biology teacher who played the role of the experimenter and wearing a grey lab coat to distinguished him as a laboratory scientist—not the more common white coat that could have signified a medical professional—the volunteer was paired with James McDonough, a forty-seven year old head payroll auditor at the New York, New Haven & Hartford railroad, playing the role of another volunteer. After giving each individuals $4.50 for their trouble and explaining the importance of the study, Williams would have each participant chose a piece of folded-up paper to randomly assign one as “teacher” and the other as “learner.” In fact, the drawing was rigged with a slight of hand trick.

Once the roles were accepted and instructions were given to both teacher and learner, the learner would be led to a room by an experimenter, where he was strapped into a chair and had electrodes attached to him while the teacher would sat in an adjoining room where he would monitor the learner via a glass window and sound system. The teacher would give word pairs to the learner who was to repeat them back. After each incorrect answer, the teacher was instructed to depress a lever on an apparatus that contained a line of 30 switches, each corresponding to an increasing level of voltage and labeled in groups reading “Slight Shock, Moderate Shock, Strong Shock, Very Strong Shock, Intense Shock, Extreme Intensity Shock, and Danger: Severe Shock.” As the learner made mistakes, the teacher would deliver ever-increasing levels of shock.

The point of the Obedience to Authority Experiment was to examine the reaction of the teacher as the level of voltage increased. The teacher was expected to experience a degree of moral conflict as the mock-voltage levels increased and the learner faked crying out in pain, complaining that he had a heart condition and begging the teacher to stop. When the teacher hesitated or threatened to quit the experiment, the experimenter would insist that the teacher must continue and that the experiment would be ruined if they quit. The experimenter would use a series of escalating prods to encourage the subject, first saying ”Please continue, or, Please go on,” then ”The experiment requires that you continue,” followed by “It is absolutely essential that you continue,” and finally “You have no other choice, you must go on.”

In describing the results, Milgram observes “Many subjects will obey the experimenter no matter how vehement the pleading of the person being shocked, no matter how painful the shocks seem to be, and no matter how much the victim pleads to be let out. This was seen time and again in our studies and has been observed in several universities where the experiment was repeated. It is the extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority that constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.” In doing so, Milgram continues, individuals were often going against the very core of their beliefs about right and wrong, but still “could not bring themselves to make an open break with authority.” Despite protestations, they went on to perform the experimenter’s bidding.

This conflict between abstract principles, no matter how fervently held and the actions of individuals in an experimental setting was the very focus of the experiment. Milgram argued that the setting was critical to making the role of authority clear. To this end, he carefully developed an experimental environment, presenting a fictitious book titled The Teaching-Learning Process as an intellectual pedigree for the experiment and constructing a machine simulating the noises of relays clicking and circuits buzzing as the shocks appeared to be delivered and coaching the actors for weeks.,The shock machine itself was convincing looking enough to pass inspection by two electrical engineers who were asked to look it over and was capable of providing a demonstration shock of 45 volts to the teacher at the start of each experiment in order to prove how it worked while setting a baseline voltage that the teacher could identify with. .Milgram would modify the setting repeatedly to compare results, for example, putting teachers and learners in the same room, adding a third actor who would simulate the role of the teacher, making the experimental subject merely a bystander, or removing the experiment from the university to a nondescript office building in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Milgram himself later declared “Although experiments in chemistry and physics involve shiny equipment, flasks, and electronic gear, an experiment in social psychology smacks much more of dramaturgy or theater.”

If the space of the experiment provided a space of authority, it remained to Milgram to explain the conflict within the individual and how he or she would give in to the experimenter. Milgram concludes that since organized social life—and with it a coordinated hierarchical social structure—has clear advantages for survival, “from the standpoint of cybernetics, the most general need in bringing self-regulating automata into a coordinated hierarchy is to suppress individual direction and control in favor of control from higher level of authority.” Obedience to authority would thus naturally arise in evolution. For “self-directed automata” to function like humans, Milgram notes, they need to be flexible enough to operate both in a “self-directed (or autonomous mode), when it is functioning on its own, and for the satisfaction of its own internal needs, and the systemic mode, when the automaton is integrated into a larger organizational structure.” The key, Milgram explains is the “agentic shift” in which the individual makes a transition to acting on behalf of the other: “of course, we do not have toggle switches emerging from our bodies, and the shifts are synaptically effected, but this makes them no less real.” In other words, the agentic shift transforms the individual acting according to internal guidance to acting as a node in the network. But if agentic shift allows us to participate in a social network, it also allows us to commit unspeakable acts of cruelty.

There was another cruelty within the experiment, that caused by Milgram to the experimental subject. As Milgram recognized from the start, the disruption of everyday life produced by going against one’s principles could cause emotional damage to the teacher. In an effort to prevent this, once the testing part of the experiment was over, the experimenter explained the nature of the project, revealing that the student had not been subject to any real shocks and bringing him out to reconcile with the learner. Milgram then noted the reactions of the teachers to the news. In this, the conclusion of the Milgram Experiment—which was recorded in a documentary film—echoed the punch line of the popular television show Candid Camera, of which Milgram was a fan and in which skits were not complete until the subject became fully cognizant of the situation.

Unlike Candid Camera, Milgram’s Obedience to Authority Experiment became notorious for the potentially destructive effects on the participants. For Psychologist Diana Baumrind, Milgram’s leading a subject to commit acts that the subject felt were unworthy would damage the subject’s sense of trust in the profession, damage that would not be erased merely by having the shock revealed as a charade. Further, the revelation of this charade might cause further damage as the subject realized he or she had been made a fool of and thus had also lost the chance to properly work through the trauma. Baumrind called for developing ethical guidelines to prevent future damage to the profession. In 1973, the American Psychological Association set out revised ethics guidelines discouraging the use of deception in experimentation.

In rejecting Milgram’s paper on the experiment for publication in the Journal of Personality, editor Edward E. Jones called it a “triumph of social engineering,” a sentiment later echoed in an article by psychologist and ethicist Herbert C. Kelman, who described the use of deception in such experiments as having an unpleasant parallel to the rising tide of systematic deception and manipulation of humans on a mass scale. Kelman singled out efforts by political campaigns to employ computers to process the results of large-scale public opinion polls to determine the response of populations to campaign issues. At its most dangerous, it became clear, the Milgram Experiment could be a blueprint for mass control. Brune Bettelheim would later considered the research “so vile that nothing these experiments show has any value. . . . They are in line with the human experiments of the Nazis.”

Milgram was initially reluctant to publicize his work in the popular press, claiming that it would interfere with future research. but once his research was published, the work soon spread through a series of popular press accounts. In turn, Milgram became a savvy popularizer of his work and released his study as both a mass market paperback and a documentary film. The experiment captured the imagination of the public in a made for TV movie and numerous on-screen recreations that have been made in the decades since. The lessons of the Obedience to Authority Experiment quickly became part of popular culture and were applied to understanding contemporary political events such as the My Lai massacres and Abu Ghirab. In doing so, the experiment has proved that its real significance is that it reveals how everyday life is made up of a series of shared stories, in which actors, backgrounds, props and even architecture are all considered equal influences to our understanding of reality. Instead of living life according to clear ideas of what is right and wrong, the experiment suggests, our thoughts and actions are determined by the context that surrounds us. In doing so, the Milgram Experiment becomes one of these stories, purporting to account for our inhumanity to each other.

Milgram developed his role as a story-teller in the other experiment that he has become famous for, the “Small World Problem.” Having understood the importance of a public opinion, Milgram published his results first not in a scientific journal but in the inaugural issue of Psychology Today and introduced the experiment with a story.

Fred Jones of Peoria, sitting in a sidewalk cafe In Tunis, and needing a light for his cigarette, asks the man at the next table for a match. They fall into conversation: the stranger is an Englishman who, it turns out, spent several months in Detroit studying the operation of an interchangeable bottlecap factory. "I know it's a foolish question," says Jones, "but did you ever by any chance run into a fellow named Ben Arkadian? He's an old friend of mine, manages a chain of supermarkets in Detroit."

"Arkadian, Arkadian," the Englishman mutters. "Why, upon my soul, I believe I do! Small chap, very energetic, raised merry hell with the factory over a shipment of defective bottlecaps.”

“No kidding!" Jones exclaims in amazement.

“Good lord, it's a small world, isn't it?”

For Milgram, this anecdote illustrates that regardless of the vast number of individuals in this world, random links within networks make such startling encounters relatively commonplace. Milgram continues by citing Jane Jacobs, who in the Death and Life of Great American Cities describes a game of “Messages” that she and her sister played after moving to New York in which they imagined how a message might pass by word of mouth between “two wildly dissimilar individuals—say a headhunter in the Solomon Islands and a cobbler in Rock Island, Illinois…” Each sister would come up with a chain of messengers and the one who could provide the shortest chain would win. Jacobs’s point was that to be successful a city district needed “hop-skip” people, often politicians or public officials, who knew large numbers of individuals and could cut long chains of communication significantly, thus weaving together the district in resilient social patterns.

Where Obedience to Authority was based on Asch’s work, the Small World experiment was based on a mathematical model and subsequent survey developed by MIT researchers Ithiel de Sola Pool, Manfred Kochen, and Michael Gurevich, who conluded that even if there was only a 1 in 200,000 chance that two Americans might know each other, there was a 50% chance that they would be connected by two people that each might know.

To conduct his experiment, Milgram distributed a set of letters to randomly selected “starters,” individuals in Omaha, Nebraska and Wichita, Kansas, each requesting to have a package sent to a specific “target,” a stockbroker living and working in Boston. If the starter did not know the target, they were asked to forward the letter to someone they knew who they thought was likely to know the target or how to reach him; this new person would become the next link in the chain. Milgram soon concluded that five intermediaries—or six degrees of separation—was the average it would take to convey a message from one individual in the “vaguely ‘out there’” to the Boston stockbroker.

But as a storyteller, Milgram is an unreliable narrator. Milgram boasted that he wrote his papers while on drugs and could tell precisely which drug he was under the influence of—marijuana, mescaline, cocaine or methamphetamine—when he looked at the texts later on. Indeed, the results from the Small World experiment are far from conclusive. Milgram himself notes that of 160 chains started in Nebraska, only 44 were completed, attributing it to a lack of obedience among subjects. More recently, however, Judith Kleinfield points out that in a first, unpublished study only 5 percent of the letters made it through and even in the published studies the rate of completion was only 30 percent. While Milgram argues that the high dropout rate was a matter of apathy or disobedience, Kleinfield observes that the article to be delivered was “an official-looking document with a heavy blue binding and a gold logo,” hardly something that should readily be put aside. Likely, she concludes, the chains had hit a dead end. Kleinfield concludes that “the belief that we live in a small world gives people a sense of security. And small-world experiences that we encounter naturally buttress people's religious faith as evidence of ‘design.’”

Indeed, today it seems that we have adopted the network as a faith. Networks and the small worlds they desribe serve as organizational models for businesses and universities, friendships and economies. In doing so, networks stand in for our own behavioral process; few people want to believe that their thoughts and actions are determined by a sequence of programmed instructions, but most don’t mind understanding their relationships with others or even their bodies or brains as comprised of networks. Milgram understood the consequences of the shift he had uncovered. In his conclusion to the experiment, Milgram phrased it succinctly: “while many studies in social science show the individual is alienated and cut off from the rest of society, this study demonstrates that, in some sense, we are all bound together in a tightly knit social fabric.”

But the story that Milgram tells, which has a darker side as well. Jacobs’s game is remarkably similar to Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy’s 1929 short story “Láncszemek” or “Chain-Links,”one of a series of character studies that Karinthy became famous for, “Láncszemek” appears as stream of consciousness reflection by a somewhat manic narrator sitting in a café. Looking for a sign of direction or evolution in the universe, the narrator finds it in global telecommunications which he concludes has brought the Earth’s population closer together than ever before, making it possible to connect any two people in the world to each other through just five intermediate links. This reflection allows the narrator to see the world as simultaneously vast and intimate, and in that dialectic find a new spirituality, the knowledge that “[the] last link leads to me, the source of everything.”

Even if the global telecommunications network was still in its infancy when he wrote his story, unlike Jacobs and Milgram, Karinthy understood the inherent narcissism of a network-based existence. Milgram’s insight is the “good news” of a new religion: we can leave behind a modern culture of disconnection and alienation and turn to a world that revolves around us by adopting the network and its culture of interconnection. Both the Milgram Experiment and the Small Worlds Problem demonstrate that stories are not merely incidental to science and everyday life but rather are constitutive of it. Architecture, in this situation, is both produced by stories and sets the stage that makes the stories with which we organize our lives possible.