Tuesday, December 16, 2008

We All Pressed the Buzzer

I can’t believe I forgot another connection with yesterday’s alcoholism-treatment study — “Buzzer,” the amazing new song from Dar Williams, which I heard on the incomparable WYEP this morning while driving to work. It should be required listening for all human beings.

The song is about the Milgram experiment, a chilling psychology study from the early ’60s. Briefly, Milgram set the experiment up to look like a study of memory and learning in which the experimental (human) subject, called the “learner,” would be punished for wrong answers via an electrical shock delivered by another volunteer participant, the “teacher.” An “experimenter” monitored the process, telling the teacher when to up the voltage.

The trick was that the teacher, not the learner, was the experimental subject; and the study wasn’t about memory, but about people’s willingness, while the Adolf Eichmann war-crimes trial was still under way, to follow an authority figure’s instructions to do something awful. The learner was actually an actor, who received no electrical shocks but agonized and screamed and finally pretended to lose consciousness under the fake torture. If the teacher balked, he or she received the following set of instructions, with the experimenter escalating the commands for every objection raised:

1. Please continue.
2. The experiment requires that you continue.
3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
4. You have no other choice, you must go on.

The shocking thing was, the experimenters got 65 percent of the teachers to go all the way to 450 volts, the point at which the actor lost consciousness. Only one teacher refused to go on before hitting 300 volts.

Turns out, under the right conditions, just about all of us are shits.

The Milgram experiment, like our alcoholism study, would probably never be approved these days. But though Milgram got his share of flak on ethical grounds, I think what this experiment taught us is too terrible and momentous to ignore, and probably in the long run justifies the damned thing. (Though some of the people who “verified” his results later on did things that make me angry, like doing it for real, with a puppy as the victim — and no, I’m not making that up.)

A lot of people know about Milgram; fewer know about what folks like psychologist Lauren Slater found out many years later. The teachers who went all the way, it turned out, weren’t the people you’d necessarily think, and neither were the folks who, at one point or another, refused to go on. One obeyer was devastated when he learned what the study had been about, and used the experience as a prod to change his life. He came out of the closet and became an activist for gay rights. One refuser went on to a long career in the military; and while I wouldn’t read too much into that, his reasons for stopping the experiment stemmed from the effect the stress was having on him, not out of concern for the victim. Two points don’t constitute much of a data set, but they show us that the details confound our broadest brush-strokes.

So here it is: We can all be shits. We all pressed the buzzer.


We all get to be individuals. We can choose to change ourselves, make ourselves more honest, braver, better. We can rise above our mistakes. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring. Hope isn’t the last refuge of the clueless.

And it begins with a one-syllable word, a word that comes easily when we’re two but not so much when we're 32:



Mark Churchill said...

I haven't yet heard the Dar Williams song, but Peter Gabriel also recorded a song based on the same experiment: "We Do What We're Told" (subtitled "Milgram's 37") from the album So (1986).

Anonymous said...

I read the Milgram et al. experiment paper when I was a teenager in the early '70s. What stuck with me then, of course in addition to the horrific finding that nearly anyone could become a torturer, was the paper's conclusion that American society at the time did not give people sufficient training in resisting authority. I don't know if that's still true; resisting authority has become an icon of behavior for many. But I'll bet the results would be a little different if you ran them today; say with college students. Not much different, but a little.

Ken Chiacchia said...


How about that -- I actually have So, but I'd forgotten that song. I'll have to listen to it again.