‘Beyond Milgram: Towards a Theory of Implicit Violence’
Sue: So David, what is this talk all about?
David: Whilst everyone in psychology and the social sciences knows about Milgram’s “obedience to authority” experiments, we don’t know why all those good American citizens obeyed an experimenter when he told them to electrocute an innocent victim despite that victim screaming not to. What I found when I listened to hundreds of audio files of these experimental sessions was that a completely neglected little phrase, “Please continue” may have played an important role. Obedient participants, just like disobedient participants, stop when they hear the learner protest; but when they then hear the experimenter’s word “please continue”, they continue. It sometimes feels as though we were in the presence of magic. And when the spell is broken, when the participants do continue resisting and provoke the experimenter to say all sorts of things – these prove pretty much useless in making them discontinue. They are free. So the talk is really about the power of this little phrase “please continue” and where this power might come from.
Sue: How did you get interested in this topic?
David: Well, what I knew about Milgram in textbooks or heard in popular media or… anywhere really, just did not make sense. Not that I am an idealist; I read about the history of the 20th century or the Bible for that matter. But it simply did not make sense to me why anyone would electrocute an innocent human being for no other reason that someone in a grey lab coat says so – let alone why lots of people would do so. (There were of course arguments that people saw through Milgram’s scheme but that never felt believable to me. Why did they sweat if things were that simple?). So I read Milgram’s actual book and papers – but it still didn’t make sense. I needed the original data which thankfully, oh and thanks to funds from the OU!!!!, was available at Yale.
Sue: How do you research something like this, and specifically, how do you research it in relation to psychological science?
David: This is a really good question, for, to begin with, the way Milgram researched this issue was precisely not to research it at all. He wrote about participants “extreme stress” in the lab and he devoted two full chapters in his book to interactions between his participants and the experimenter, but this was just to illustrate things. He did not actually look at the interactions themselves and the dynamics going on there. Neither did, with one important exception, anyone for the next 50 years.
And the second reason why this is a good question is because when researchers started to look at the interactions they did what you would expect them to do: analysing them qualitatively. This is also what I was inclined to do, by force of habit. But when I listened to the same stock phrases, like “Please continue”, being uttered again and again and again, I thought “Hold on, why don’t I count this and see whether it predicts obedience or disobedience.”
Sue: Why are those results important?
David: My results are preliminary, but if it proves to be true that the only thing the experimenter did that predicts participants’ obedience is saying “please continue”, and that when he used this apparently polite little phrase he actually communicated very subtly something horroristic to them (i.e., that they as human beings do not matter) – I find the implications massive. It suggests to me that we are very vulnerable to a kind of violence that we do not notice. What is more, that people who are being violent towards us do not notice either. Or that we do not notice when we are violent towards others.
Sue: What’s next in this line of research
David: Well, first of all, I became interested in other subtle ways by which the house of terror can be built. Unfortunately, as these are audio tapes, an awful lot is missing by way of gestures and bodily communication. But we do have silences and I find them fascinating too. When the experimenter is just sitting there, silently. Or, like I said above, when there is no silence and the participant raises an issue of such moral important (e.g., “What if he’s dead?”) and the experimenter just replies, no thinking, “Please continue”. But there is also the issue, of course, of what the capacity was that enabled disobedient participants to withstand this invisible terror.
Sue: Thank you so much David, we look forward to more from your observations and research insights.
Please see below the original blog about David’s talk and the link to the recorded talk.