The decision-making moments in the Milgram experiment
Note: YouTube has taken down the video embedded in the original post because of copyright claims. You can still watch an abridged version of it at this link. The man in the video is the one discussed below.
If you took Psychology 101 in college you might have seen film of the Milgram experiment, one of the most famous in social science. A 50 minute edited video of it popped up recently on YouTube. We discuss the Milgram experiment in Nudge, not to explain the rise of fascism – as has become the common modern view of it – but rather to make a point about how social pressures nudge people to accept conclusions that are at odd with their own views of reality, and then shape their behavior.
In the experiment, the subjects administered what they assumed was an electric shock to a person in an adjacent room after the person gave a wrong answer to a memory test. Subjects routinely went beyond 300 volts (in one run, every subject went beyond 300 volts!), and more than half administered the maximum 450-volt shock, which, in case they were not too familiar with the dangers of electricity, went beyond the “Danger: Very Severe Shock” label on the machine they used. Watching these experiments, what is most remarkable is not the subject’s final decision to shock. It is the subject’s decision making process during which the subject arrives at the conclusion to go ahead and give the shock.
Take the subject in this video (he is first shown at minute 4:15), a late-middle aged white male with an army-style crew cut and a white t-shirt. As the voltage level increases, the man becomes increasingly conflicted about administering the shock. He visibly expresses his displeasure and unease about the question-and-answer test, protesting to the experimenter a desire to end it. Interestingly, however, the amount of time between the point of hearing the wrong answer and administering the shock remains about the same regardless of how high the voltage climbs and how piercing his partner’s screams become. The deliberative part of his decision – the reflective decision-making moment where he answers Shall I go on with the experiment? Shall I shock? – always applies to the next round of questioning on the test, not to incorrect answer he just heard. There appears to be no deliberation at the moment of the wrong answer. There is only an automatic decision to shock. It is as if he already made that decision in the previous round.
The catalyst for deliberation always seems to be external. The man’s hesitation and distress follow the screams and angry protests of his partner; not from any self-reflective process or moment in which he extrapolates the results of past shocks to future ones. In fact, once the voltage reaches the high 300s and the partner stops answer questions, the man’s deliberation time actually decreases. The nudge in the Milgram experiment is a powerful one. But so is human obduracy in the form of a mind already made up.