Milgram’s work is a reminder that too many of us depend on responsibility-avoiding locutions like “I’m just doing my job.”
The recent film Experimenter (2015) dramatizes the work of social psychologist Stanley Milgram, who was interested in the seemingly fixed tendency of humans to shift responsibility for harmful acts up the chain of command. Milgram is well known for his “shock box” experiments at Yale University in the early 1960s. In this iconic study volunteer “teachers” were recruited and instructed to ask true/false questions to unseen “learners” in an adjoining room. Any wrong answer given by the learner was to be followed by electric shocks administered by the teacher. If the volunteer teachers expressed alarm over the shouts of pain coming from the next room, they were instructed by the white-coated experimenter to proceed. This was usually followed by a reassurance that the researcher would take responsibility for the entire process. And so over two thirds of his volunteers proceeded to inflict seemingly lethal doses of electricity on the learner.
Of course the learner was not actually hooked up to the shock box. He was an actor. But the teachers did not know that, nor did they understand that they were the experimental subjects. Milgram was testing their willingness to carry out instructions issued by a superior, even when the effect of the shocks they were supposedly administering were harmful.
No Institutional Review Board at any university in the United States would ever allow this kind of research today. Volunteers cannot be put in this kind stressful state. But the Milgram studies remain as stark testimony to the willingness of seemingly decent people to comply when credible authorities take responsibility for indefensible actions against others.
Milgram was one is a long line of thinkers and researchers on the origins of German acceptance of the exterminations going on within the Third Reich. All wondered why otherwise decent people could be so easily induced into lethal compliance.
The short answer is that we seem to regard higher authority as a kind of shelter: they can be responsible for decisions that they want to enforce. One effect is that questioning the morality of a “job duty” seems to get lost in the comfort of just “doing the work,” “doing what I’m told,” or “respecting the decisions of my bosses.”
Luckily, most encounters with mid-level functionaries do not come with such lethal risks to others. But we can still imagine the urge to comply that so easily happens within the middle of the chain of command. And so Milgram’s work is also a cautionary tale of how many individuals spend their working lives dependent on locutions like “I’m just doing my job.”
He calls individuals who find comfort in these caveats “agentic personalities.” They assume no responsibility for the consequences of their actions. And so paperwork must be filled out before an emergency room patient who may be bleeding out can be admitted. An office supervisor insists on a performance review for a person who is about to retire. Or a pre-9/11 trade school registrar never thinks to inquire why a man wants to learn how to fly a commercial airliner, but not land it. Functionaries in these roles find a degree of psychological shelter in the belief that they are acting in accord with their required job-role. After all, it’s “the boss” who is really in charge.
But here’s the kicker. In the Milgram study there was no requirement to comply. Volunteers could quit if they didn’t like what they had to do. Even so, most stayed to the bitter end.