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The Milgram Experiment: Part Trois!


M. Russell Thomas, PhD

Dear American People,

Today I write the 3rd and final letter to you regarding the Milgram Experiment and what it tells us about today’s world, authority and obedience. My first letter dealt the dynamics of the study while my second letter presented the findings and their modern-day application. We learned that two-thirds of the people responsible to administer what they were told was a near-lethal shock for incorrectly recalling word pairs, were willing to push the button. Yes, they squirmed, broke out in cold sweats, questioned the need and even laughed uncontrollably (one to point of seizures), but in the end, 65% complied with the lethal shock command. And to boot, we learned that all subjects, called Teachers in the experiment, were willing to go to the second most painful level.

If you are like me, your knee jerk reaction is to condemn the 65%.

· What were they thinking?!...

· How could anyone do such a thing?!...

· Blind stooges!

And then, the big one…

· I would never, ever do that!

Well not so fast there, John Wayne! If you’re in Vegas putting your money down, doesn’t 65% speak to you? If you bet on Compliance, you have a 2 in 3 chance of being correct. In other words, if its you, me and our best friend, only 1 of us will Defy the authority. The safer bet is on folding! I wouldn’t want to do so and neither would any decent person in this world. But in the end, 2 out of 3 will push the button.

And we’re not the only ones thinking so piously. Prior to the experiment, a group of 40 psychiatrists from a medical school were asked to predict outcome. They predicted that less than 4% would be willing to push the button on the 300-volt shock and that only a very small percentage would administer the lethal shock. Another group of undergraduate psychology students were also asked to predict outcome. That group believed that only a very small percentage would be willing to push the maximum strength button, less than 2%. Finally, Milgram polled some of his colleagues and found that most believed that only a “very few subjects” would be willing to inflict the maximum voltage. The point is, it defies human understanding as to why such a high percentage of subjects were willing to obey the authority’s demand to keep administering the painful shocks just like it defies understanding why churches are forbidden to gather in some sections of the country and/or forbidden to sing when they do, while protesters gather in masses, while many, many people are ok with this and offer no voice to even ask why...please continue, the experiment must go on!

That said, here’s what I consider the most relevant and critical part of the Milgram experiment. What about the third or so that didn’t comply? Personally, I want to know about these guys! They are our heros and role models. How did they resist the pressures of authority to follow their own internal moral gyroscope? This is where we find ourselves in America, right now, 2020, in the quarantined “safety” of our homes (sarcasm noted), communities and masks, believing, no, knowing that things are not as they seem but left to figure out exactly what that means. It’s the quintessential cognitive dissonance. That is, knowing, feeling, believing something in your mind and gut, while being pounded with information that contradicts all those convictions. Its what each one of us is facing and many are not holding up well. Some are going bankrupt, others are being evicted, while others are protesting and most sadly, some are opting out in favor of taking their own lives.

So lets talk about what we know about the DEFIERS? Who are these mavericks who had the audacity to resist the demands of the Examiner? Several years ago, Matthew Hollander, a Sociology Doctoral student, examined closely the transcripts of 117 original sessions (including initial and subsequent versions of the Milgram experiment) and found that DEFIERS used 6 basic strategies to defy the examiners directives to administer shock. The resistance ranged along a spectrum of defiance from more passive to overt defiance. Here are those 6 strategies and how they play out in the session:

· Remaining silent or hesitating (i.e., not openly resistant but not complying either)

Examiner: Please continue

Defier: does nothing for a minute trying to communicate his discomfort to do as

directed…and follows orders

· Subtlety communicating dissatisfaction (sighing, groaning, otherwise slow to


Examiner: Please continue

Defier: sighs, groans, squirms, rings heads, fidgets…then follows orders

· Communicating their discomfort and anxiety (laughing)

Examiner: The experiment requires that you continue

Defier: anxiety and tension build, does his best to communicate his discomfort

and awkwardly laughs…then follows orders

· Talking to the victim (suggesting that the victim make the decision whether to continue

or not)

Examiner: It is absolutely essential that you continue

Defier: in an effort to defray personal responsibility begins to ask permission

from the victim…then follows orders

· Appealing to authority to provide a remedy (presenting information as to why the

experiment should not continue)

Examiner: It is absolutely essential that you continue

Defier: Can’t we do this in some other way, maybe have lower shocks to make

sure that nobody gets hurt?

Examiner: Again, it is absolutely essential that you continue

Defier: But, can’t you do something? Can’t you compromise? Can’t you see my

point here? We’re hurting the guy!

Examiner: Again, it is absolutely essential that you continue. You have no other

choice, the experiment must go on!

Defier: goes through all 5 strategies and then…administers the next level of


· Announcing one’s outright unwillingness to continue (that is, announcing their

intent to stop their participation)

Examiner: Please continue

Defier: I can’t do this anymore! This is insane, we’re hurting the guy, maybe

even killing him! And for what?...

Examiner: You have no other choice, the experiment must go on!

Defier: Think what you will...I quit!

Interesting stuff, huh? But there’s a problem. Both COMPLIERS and DEFIERS used all 6 strategies! What was the difference? DEFIERS started using the strategies earlier, more often and used the more overt, forceful stategies throughout the sessions. DEFIERS started their objections and threats to quit much earlier in the sequence of administering shock and they kept it up throughout the entire session until they discontinued and used the most forceful strategy, #6, many, many more times than the Compliers. In fact, only 1 in 5 of the Compliers even used #6 even once! They chose the more passive route hoping that somehow, someway, the Examiner would back off, change his position and either discontinue or find another way to do this whole thing.

A final word about the DEFIERS. There are 4 distinguishing factors that separate the DEFIERS from the COMPLIERS;

#1. DEFIERS used multiple, diverse strategies in their resistance. Its sorta like they said, “if one thing doesn’t work, I’ll try another”. They didn’t rely on just one strategy.

#2. Locus of control. It seems that the DEFIERS were more focused on the rights of the victim, that is, the Learner's personal right to decide when enough is enough vs. focusing on the examiner’s rights to inflict their agenda on both Teacher and Learner. In other words, DEFIERS respected the authority, but in the end, they did not see them as the final word if that word demanded that human dignity and personal freedom is overridden by the Examiner’s agenda.

#3. Start early. It’s a whole lot easier to defend the fort than to overtake it. DEFIERS began early in their protests. It was like they began firing warning shots in the process. They offered plenty of opportunity for the Examiner to change but they began their challenges to the Examiner agenda early.

#4. Meeting force with force. The DEFIERS simply continued to rise to the challenge and refused to back down. They listened to their internal principles and convictions. Every time those were challenged, they used at least one of the 6 resistance strategies. And they were relentless not to give up.

Again, I ask, now do you see it? These are principles of democracy that have defined America since its inception. Let us learn from this study and diligently incorporate this information into our daily lives. We live in the Land of Not as It Seems and we all would do well to consider what we are are fed each day. The Examiner has an agenda! Will we think critically for ourselves, protest passively and then hit the button on our fellow man? Will we…

· Speak early. Today is the day to escalate the voice and use more aggressive strategies…personally, I’d say were already well into the experiment and well past the hand-wringing stage!

· Speak out in diverse ways. Internet, social media, letters to governors, law makers, etc. challenging decisions, critically reviewing science, letters encouraging those who are actively involved in Strategy 6 activities, even legal mitigations are ways to resist the demands of the Examiner.

· Speak consistently. Our voice must consistently counter the Examiner’s agenda. For every punch thrown, we must be prepared counter-punch. Notice that the DEFIERS increased their aggressiveness in responding but that’s because the Examiner increased his demands. The DEFIERS didn’t let anything slide without at least a passive resistance strategy.

The Milgram Experiment, if nothing else, challenges us to examiner ourselves and ask the question, “Are we thinking critically, that is, are we thinking for ourselves, or have we blindly surrendered our personal freedoms to the Examiner with his own agendas?” Remember, the Examiner’s role: he doesn’t care if you hit the button for maximum electrocution! He's only interested in whether you comply or not!

Next up! Another interesting study from the 1970s that speaks loudly to today's world. The Stanford Prison Experiment extends the findings of the Milgram study, as it focuses on what happens to people when they are assigned a role to play. Whether authority, gatekeepers, or oppressed, interesting things happen to people when they find themselves in one of these roles.

So don’t miss the coming weeks because…

I’m Gonna Write a Letter!

Take care, walk with conviction, live with integrity and love with a heart.

Dr. Russell Thomas

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