Milgram: A Sociological Perspective

May 23, 2015    By: Jeff G @ 12:28 pm   Category: Ethics,orthodox

I assume all of our readers here are familiar with the Stanley Milgram experiment.  (If not, I strongly recommend that you plug it into a google search and watch the numerous fascinating articles, summaries and (especially) youtube videos.  I guarantee that it will not be a waste of your time.)  Essentially every reference made to this experiment within the bloggernacle uses it as a sort of smoking gun for the dangerous possibilities to be had in “blind” obedience to our priesthood leaders.  I want to push back, not so much against this specific application of the experiment (such dangers do exist), but against the worldview that motivates such an application.

For starters, the Milgram’s was a psychological experiment in that it was meant to speak to our shared human nature and our (unfortunate?) inclination toward trusting authority figures with moral decisions that are rightly ours.  It is  this psychological interpretation that justified its generalization to our obedience to and trust of authority figures that simply happen to lie within the church’s priesthood structure.

The problem is that the experiment did NOT involve religious authorities.  Instead, it was an experiment regarding our obedience to and trust in scientific authorities of a fully secular stripe.  A more sociological interpretation of the Milgram experiment would thus not be that human beings are (unfortunately?) naturally inclined to defer to authority figures, but rather than us Westerners have (unfortunately?) been taught to defer to scientific authorities and that this trust in lab coats is far more dangerous than we often assume.

Indeed, even if one were to generalize the experiment to religious authorities, one can only do so by equating scientific authorities in religious authorities in some important sense.  I am fully on board with this, but it has interesting implications and contradictions for those who would appeal to the scientific authority of Milgram in order to critically examine appeals to religious authority.  Since the Milgram experiment is more relevant to science than it is to religion, it is likely the case that such people are cutting off their own noses to spite their faces.



  1. There are several other problems such as whether people knew they were acting or not. Personally even ignoring how people apply it I think there are strong reasons to be skeptical of it on its own terms. I think there are compelling reasons to think people were behaving the way they expected the psychologists to want them to behave.

    Comment by Clark — May 23, 2015 @ 7:20 pm

  2. Clark, Just a few years ago, Jerry Burger of Santa Clara University replicated Milgrim’s study and got similar results. In addition, he tried to take actions to avoid some of the things that you wrote about. You can find his article on several sites on the web

    Comment by Stam Beale — May 24, 2015 @ 3:12 pm

  3. That’s very interesting Stam. I’ll definitely check it out when I get a moment. If he were able to replicate it rigorously that’s quite an achievement and I’m surprised it’s not received more attention.

    Comment by Clark — May 25, 2015 @ 1:14 pm

  4. Stan,

    I thought one of the major consequences of the Milgram experiment was that it inspired regulations against unethical experiments such that experiments like it could no longer be repeated?

    Comment by Jeff G — May 29, 2015 @ 3:56 pm

  5. Jeff, they put in safeguards such as limiting it to 150 V (which really is nothing) I am still a bit skeptical given how well known the Milligram study is. They attempted to deal with this by excluding anyone who’d taken two psychology classes. I’m not sure that’s sufficient to prevent people trying to please the psychologists by doing what’s expected. Likewise excluding anyone who might have a negative reaction seems to likely be excluding those who wouldn’t act the way Miligram’s people acted.

    I suspect there’s something to the idea that people do bow to authority although I suspect there’s a larger range of variance than these limited studies allow us to see. Likewise I suspect this is part of how people’s behaviors change in groups (which is well documented). I just worry that the experiments are pushed in meaning well beyond what can be justified.

    Comment by Clark — June 1, 2015 @ 9:05 am

  6. To add, the Sheridan & King experiment which used puppies rather than people seems more believable. For one the cynical take that people are faking is eliminated. Only half the men and all the women did the shocked at the higher levels. Although I must confess I’m surprised that experiment was approved and it seems unethical to my eyes.

    Comment by Clark — June 1, 2015 @ 9:09 am

  7. Spengler, Stantz & Venkman at New York did much the same thing in 1984 with wildly different results.

    Comment by Wally Bob — June 2, 2015 @ 3:51 pm

  8. “Spengler, Stantz & Venkman” How many people realize you’re citing the Ghostbusters?

    Comment by Paul — June 22, 2015 @ 10:47 am

  9. I can’t believe I missed that reference. I am a disgrace!

    Comment by Jeff G — June 22, 2015 @ 2:11 pm

  10. It is worth noting the Freakonomics analysis and the criticisms of the experiment as being highly projected.

    Comment by Stephen M — July 9, 2015 @ 11:50 am

  11. Contra

    Comment by Stephen M — July 9, 2015 @ 11:52 am

  12. Could you elaborate a bit?

    Comment by Jeff G — July 9, 2015 @ 12:23 pm

  13. I suspect he’s referring to the episode Freakonomics did on the Milligram experiment last year.

    Comment by Clark — July 9, 2015 @ 3:40 pm