The psychology of torture (The Holocaust is the event that shaped the Milgram experiment)

tags: psychology, Holocaust, Nazis, Milgram

Malcolm Harris is a writer and editor at The New Inquiry. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

... [Stanley] Milgram was the child of two eastern-European Jews, and as an adolescent he was keenly aware that it was only historical chance that put him in New York and not a Nazi camp. His oft-cited letter to a Harvard classmate in 1958 reveals a young man beset with survivor’s guilt: ‘I should have been born into the German-speaking Jewish community of Prague in 1922 and died in a gas chamber some 20 years later,’ Milgram wrote. ‘How I came to be born in the Bronx Hospital I’ll never quite understand.’ He was haunted by the demon of obedience, of Eichmann and the gas chamber, and he took an active role in calling it forth from where it sits in the human psyche.

The Holocaust haunts more than just Milgram; in many ways, it’s the founding trauma for social psychology. So great was its influence, that in his 1979 history of the sub-discipline, Dorwin Cartwright wrote: ‘If I were required to name the one person who has had the greatest impact upon the field [of social psychology], it would have to be Adolf Hitler.’

Psychoanalysing the discipline itself helps to explain why social psychologists continue repeating the same series of experiments beyond their utility. The Jewish gestalt psychologist Kurt Lewin emigrated from Berlin to the US when Hitler came to power in 1933. Three years later, he would publish the founding equation of social psychology: B = f (P, E), meaning that behaviour is a function of a person in their environment. Perhaps the world expert on Milgram is Thomas Blass, a Hungarian Jew born during the Second World World War and himself a survivor of the genocide. So, far from being a pure, existential study of human nature, social psychology emerges from a particular moment in history.

In Behind the Shock Machine (2012), the Australian journalist and psychologist Gina Perry assailed the very validity of the Milgram experiments. Although she initially came to the study of Milgram with sympathy for the haunted doctor, Perry quickly found a more worthy object for her feelings: Milgram’s subjects. Reviewing transcripts from the experiments in the Yale archive, she found a lot of disobedience hidden in the obedience numbers, and a number of confounding variables. For example, Milgram made sure subjects knew the payment for participation was theirs even if they walked away, but in the transcripts this seems to have triggered reciprocity with the experimenters. One subject continues only after the experimenter tells him he can’t return the money. Another obedient subject remonstrates after she’s finished obeying, because she quickly understands what the experiment was really about and is disgusted. In the drive for quantitative results, the procedure ignored valuable qualitative information. ‘I would never be able to read Obedience to Authority again without a sense of all the material that Milgram had left out,’ Perry writes, ‘the stories he had edited, and the people he had depicted unfairly.’

In an unpublished paper Perry found in the archive, Milgram was quite candid with regard to his experiment’s true purpose: ‘Let us stop trying to kid ourselves; what we are trying to understand is obedience of the Nazi guards in the prison camps, and that any other thing we may understand about obedience is pretty much of a windfall, an accidental bonus.’ Milgram didn’t write a hypothesis for an experiment, he made a script for a play. It’s poor science, Perry writes, but it might be great art.

To view the Milgram experiments as a work of art is to include the haunted young doctor as a character, and to question his reliability as a narrator. As an artwork, the experiments can tell us about much more than obedience to authority; they speak to memory, trauma, repetition, the foundations of post-war social thought, and the role of science in modernity. There is no experiment that can prove who we are but, in its particulars, art can speak in universals. Long after his tests are considered invalid, Milgram’s story will live on.

Read entire article at Aeon

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