Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Milgram dissident

/ who disobeys? /
If you haven't heard of the Milgram experiment on obedience, see the relevant Wikipedia article first. Then, if you want, watch Milgram's fascinating short (44') film on the subject, Obedience:

I stumbled upon (via Metafilter) a first person account from one of the people who actually refused to continue the experiment (one of the 15 out of 40 only to do so in Milgram's first experiment), titled Resisting Authority: A Personal Account of the Milgram Obedience Experiments. It is a fascinating story that reveals - aside from the fact that this guy sort of figured that the whole thing might be staged that the man in question was a member of the Communist Party of the USA. This I think is highly relevant and I quote the man in full on his political opinions and their relevance to his behavior in the experiment:
In retrospect, I believe that my upbringing in a socialist-oriented family steeped in a class struggle view of society taught me that authorities would often have a different view of right and wrong than mine. That attitude stayed with me during my three and one half years of service in the army, in Europe, during World War II. Like all soldiers, I was taught to obey orders, but whenever we heard lectures on army regulations, what stayed with me was that we were also told that soldiers had a right to refuse illegal orders (though what constituted illegal was left vague).
In addition, in my position during the late 1940s as a staff member of the Communist Party, in which I held positions as chairman in New Haven and Hartford, I had become accustomed to exercising authority and having people from a variety of backgrounds and professions carry out assignments I gave them. As a result, I had an unorthodox understanding of authority and was not likely to be impressed by a white lab coat.
In the early 1950s, I was harassed and tailed by the FBI, and in 1954, along with other leaders of the Communist Party in Connecticut, I was arrested and tried under the Smith Act on charges of "conspiracy to teach and advocate the overthrow of the government by force and violence." We were convicted, as expected, and I was about to go to jail when the conviction was overturned on appeal. I believe these experiences also enabled me to stand up to an authoritative "professor."
This is not to say that membership in the Communist Party made me or anyone else totally independent. Many of us, in fact, had become accustomed to carrying out assignments from people with higher positions in the Party, even when we had doubts. Would I have refused to follow orders had the experimental authority figure been a "Party leader" instead of a "professor"? I like to think so, as I was never a stereotypical "true believer" in Party doctrine. This was one of the reasons, among others, that I left the Party in the late 1950s. In any event, I believe that my political experience was an important factor in determining my skeptical behavior in the Milgram experiment.

Update June 20 2008: A recent trial of the Milgram experiment concludes that: "Among other things, we found that today people obey the experimenter in this situation at about the same rate they did 45 years ago"...

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