Michael Portillo and the Milgram Experiment
BBC 2 last night broadcast Michael Portillo's long-awaited documentary How Violent Are You? Its basic conclusion, that most people have an inbuilt propensity towards committing acts of savage aggression, wasn't particularly surprising in itself. But it gave us another opportunity to watch a thoughtful and articulate public performer, and to ponder what a great loss he was to politics.
As with Portillo's earlier documentary about capital punishment, much of the pleasure came from watching the former defence secretary placed in uncomfortable (if not, this time, life-threatening) situations. Here, we saw him punching a Bolivian farmer and, in a longer set-piece, "caring" for two perpetually crying artificial babies and working as a sous-chef, the object being to deprive him of sleep. The psychologist in charge claimed that he was "displacing his anger" onto the production team. But then what other possible objects for his anger were there? The plastic babies?
The situation up in the Andes was faintly disturbing. They were there to film a festival in which the locals beat each other up. A couple of children were cheered on as they knocked each other about the head - not footage the crew would be allowed to film back in Britain, I suspect - but what really shocked was the matter-of-fact way in which an evidently educated and civilised Bolivian explained how it is considered auspicious when one of the participants gets killed. It's good for the harvest, apparently. I was wondering what the authorities thought of all this, and whether charges were ever brought, but such questions were left unexplored. It was explained that the local culture gave people "social permission" to release their natural aggression - which left me, for some reason, thinking of the Metropolitan Police.
The programme also featured an interview with a Sudanese former child-soldier reflecting on the "joy of revenge" (which, in his case, included hacking off the private-parts of a still-breathing prisoner and stuffing them in his mouth to "make him feel the pain"). Tacked onto the end came a recreation of the notorious Milgram "obedience" experiment. As in the original, conducted by Stanley Milgram at Yale in the early 1960s, volunteers from the general public were invited to take part in a psychological "experiment" to see if learning could be enhanced by punishing errors in recall with electric shocks. They were told that a fellow participant - in reality a stooge - would be wired up to an electrical machine which they would operate. Various levels of shock were indicated on the machine's dashboard - the higher levels were potentially lethal, and clearly indicated as involving "extreme danger". Despite this, and with varying levels of protest and discomfort, the majority of the participants (nine out of the twelve) were willing to administer the shocks under the direction of a white-coated "scientist" who told them that their compliance was "essential to the experiment".
It's not clear what the segment was doing in a film about violence, since the whole point of the Milgram experiment was to test the extent to which ordinary people are willing to obey immoral instructions when there is no direct violence involved. Unlike the later Stanford prison experiment, which did involve actual violence, the set-up here is designedly clinical. The subjects hear occasional yelps and demands to be let free - and their reactions are disturbing enough to watch - but they are not asked personally to hit or kick their victims, who are (they think) in another room. Previous sections of the documentary had stressed the idea that the potential for violence was something that most people managed to keep in check, and explored various disinhibitory mechanisms, including stress, excitement, dopamine release, brain injury and sleeplessness. (Though Portillo did not mention it, strong religious conviction can also be an effective disinhibitor, as can nationalistic fervour.) But the Milgram experiment isn't about the breaking through of dark impulses from the subconscious.
Quite the opposite, in fact: it concerns the power of social conformity and deference to overcome the natural desire not to inflict unnecessary pain on others who have done you no harm. The experiment distances torturer from victim, just as the lawyers who drew up articles of acceptable torture for the Bush administration had no direct contact with the people being interrogated (while the interrogators, for their part, were following legalistic protocols which absolved them from personal blame). The subjects in Portillo's film, as in the original experiment, exhibited no sadistic joy (well, not most of them, anyway). They protested, complained, showed signs of stress, clearly knew that what they were doing was wrong, obtained reassurance that they would not be legally responsible; but they went ahead and did it anyway. As Milgram himself wrote in 1974,
Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.
Milgram carried out several variants of his experiment, discovering, for example, that obedience declined if the "victim" was physically present in the room or if the experimenter wasn't. In the most disturbing version, carried out by a different team several years later, the human victim was replaced by a puppy, who actually did receive shocks. Levels of compliance were just as high; but if what was being tested was the conflict between morality and obedience to "scientific" procedure, it was the experimenters, more than their test subjects, who must be said truly to have failed. Far more benign was the man reported in Stuart Sutherland's book Irrationality, the Enemy Within, who "boarded a London tube, went up to a stranger and said 'will you please give me your seat?' Almost everyone approached stood up to let him sit down."
One of the few in last night's film who did decline to pursue the experiment to its (potentially lethal) conclusion - a man in his fifties - found the willingness of the others to follow orders "scary". "It sounds a bit like the Nazis", he said - which was, of course, Milgram's original point. A younger man, who carried on despite voicing severe doubts, later expressed appropriate self-disgust. But some of those who had disgraced themselves seemed startlingly unabashed. The women, I'm sorry to report, appeared to be the worst. A pretty nineteen year-old student dished out the shocks without a flicker of emotion or thought - even after hearing a voice screaming "let me out - my heart's starting to bother me". After that, the subject stopped answering - an obvious sign that something was seriously amiss. But this did not even occur to the airhead at the controls, who continued flicking the switches, until eventually she turned to the "professor" with a beaming smile and asked "have we killed him?" Terrifying.
(I suppose it's possible she had watched Derren Brown's recreation of the Milgram experiment a couple of years ago and knew what was going on. But presumably the participants had been screened for prior knowledge.) Paula, a "personal coach" in her early forties, was a little more troubled by what was going on, but her main worry was over whether her victim had "signed the form" absolving her of any responsibility for injury or death. When she was told at the end that she hadn't actually been administering any shocks she sounded surprised, even disappointed, and not particularly relieved.
It was a small sample, and we weren't shown the whole of it or how easy the producers found it to recruit volunteers, so it would be unwise to draw too many conclusions. Apart, perhaps, from ignorance. The "maximum" of 450 volts is almost twice the mains voltage and it is - ahem - shocking to learn that so many people are unaware of its lethality. Participants were assured that the experiment caused "no permanent tissue damage", which seemed to be enough for most of them. The ratchet effect may be significant: participants began administering a very moderate "dose of electricity", increasing in steps that were, themselves, fairly small. Such a procedure can create an impression of moderate change and continuity even over a very short timespan, as framers of terrorist legislation are well aware.
The psychologist suggested that the "ideological" belief participants obeyed because of their belief that they were helping "science". It's an interesting suggestion, and one with enormous implications that weren't further examined. But I doubt it's the whole truth. What this trial - like other versions of Milgram that have been conducted over the years - does suggest is that the decline in social deference since the 1960s has not led to increased willingness to question "authority" - even when that authority takes the attenuated form of a mild-mannered experimenter. In the original, 65% of those tested went on to the bitter end. Here it was three quarters.
Portillo himself expressed surprise at this when speaking about the programme on Start the Week some months ago. But how surprised should we be? Society has, if anything, become more conformist and bureaucratic in the past fifty years. Automatic obedience to conventional figures in authority - teachers, men in uniform (and, of course, politicians) - may have declined, but it has come to be replaced by deference to procedures and rules. It was striking how all the MPs caught out taking advantage of the expenses system stressed that their behaviour was "within the rules", as though that somehow absolved them of personal responsibility. The box-ticking, arse-covering culture of the nanny state discourages both individual initiative and accountability. Ethics have become to a great extent externalised: doing, saying or even thinking "the right thing" is now established by conformity to a set of regulations rather than a person's internal moral yardstick. Deviation from established procedure may lead to punishment, even if the decision itself is the best one, as when whistleblowers are disciplined or rescuers sanctioned for endangering themselves without a first carrying out a proper safety assessment. Intricate, legalistic codes of behviour and "best practice" loom larger than actual human beings, leading inevitably to disasters such as the Haringey social services scandal.
To judge (most unscientifically) from the footage, the younger participants were markedly less likely to raise objections. "I didn't think about it too much", grinned one (male) student. "My job was just to do the list". "Just doing my job" is, of course, the modern, fluffier equivalent of "only following orders". These are Blair's children, schooled in the language of tolerance, products of perhaps the most liberal educational and social regime in human history. Many observers have noted the extreme levels of social conformism exhibited by today's young adults. A survey carried out by anthropologist Kate Fox (for her book Watching the English) found, among other things, that only 14% of 14-24 year olds agreed that "at my age, having fun is more important than thinking about the future", a lower percentage than among people in their forties. She wrote:
My concern is that these largely commendable tendencies are also symptoms of a wider and more worrying trend: our findings indicated that young people ware increasingly affected by the culture of fear, and the risk-avesion and obsession with safety that have become defining features of contemporary society. This trend, described by one sociologist as a "cultural climate of pervasive anxiety", is associated with the stunted aspirations, cautiousness, conformism and lack of adventurous spirit that were evident among many of the young people in our survey and focus groups....what worried me was that these young people were more conservative, moderate and conformist than their parents' generation, that there seemed to be a trend towards even greater excesses of moderation.
And more likely to administer electric shocks on demand, possibly.
Paula's insistence on knowing whether her victim had signed the consent form - and the weight she placed on a meaningless piece of bureaucracy - gave the scenario another very 21st century twist. Yet none of the participants was in reality "doing a job"; they had nothing to lose even financially by disobeying, and everything, potentially, to lose by doing what they were told. Only social compliance - politeness, even - stood between them and their consciences. No wonder most whistles stay unblown. No wonder good, well-intentioned, domestically blameless nurses and doctors allow elderly patients to starve to death in hospitals. No wonder that so often, in the passive voice beloved of blame-shirkers everywhere, "mistakes are made".
The Milgram experiment revealed the troubling flip side of the socially useful instinct to co-operate and follow rules and instructions laid down by others. It identified what is perhaps a basic flaw in human psychology. But its expression is as much cultural as biological, though. It may be that natural British reserve and unwillingness to create a fuss - and a hard-wired belief in the benign nature of authority and public institutions - leaves us particularly vulnerable. It's not that we are natural sadists; it's more that too many of us are convinced that the innocent have nothing to fear.