Sundance 2015: The Notorious Milgram and Zimbardo Experiments

In 1961, social psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted his famous "obedience experiments" at Yale University. Contrary to Milgram’s expectations, participants showed a remarkable willingness to obey orders, even if it meant shocking another person with high amounts of electricity. Ten years later, Stanford professor Philip Zimbardo, who was in the same Bronx high school class as Milgram, conducted another behavioral experiment in which students acted out the roles of inmates and guards in a simulated prison setting. Like Milgram, Zimbardo was accused of taking the experiment too far, and as with his colleague’s work, those who took part suffered excessive psychological strain.

At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, two high-profile films about Milgram and Zimbardo will have their world premieres: Michael Almereyda’s Sloan-supported Experimenter, which stars Peter Sarsgaard as Milgrim and Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s The Stanford Prison Experiment, which stars Billy Crudup as Zimbardo.

To get a better understanding of these two men and their work, Sloan Science and Film spoke with University of Minnesota psychology professor Jeffry A. Simpson, co-author of “The Power of the Situation: The Impact of Milgram’s Obedience Studies on Personality and Social Psychology” (American Psychologist, 2009) and editor of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Interpersonal Relations and Group Processes. Below, Simpson speaks about the legacy and impact of Milgram and Zimbardo’s research, and how extreme situations can bring out the worst (and the best) in people.

Sloan Science and Film: First off, can you provide some context for Milgram’s studies: What was his starting point?

Jeffry Simpson: What lead Milgram to initially be interested in this topic was the Nuremberg war trials in WWII. He did not believe the guards who said, “You can’t blame me; I was only following orders.” He did not believe that was a legitimate, psychologically justifiable defense. So he started out believing that he would prove that the guards were just trying to avoid being culpable for the atrocities. He didn’t think the participants would be put in an awkward situation, because he thought they would stop. But they didn’t. In the first studies that he did, which he is famous for, two-thirds of the people went up to 450 volts, the highest level of the shock generator.

SSF: So what is the fundamental takeaway of Milgram’s work?

JS: The takeaway is there’s a big gap between what people say they will do in a situation and what they actually do behaviorally. When you’re actually in a situation, under pressure, you may behave in a radically different way than you anticipate or even want to. The vast majority people in his study were well-intentioned people. They were not sadistic or cruel or mean; they were caught in a situation that they were never exposed to before. And they did things that bothered many of them. One of the reasons that Milgram’s work got a lot of publicity was there were some people who had psychological problems after the experiment.

SSF: Is there anything that we should know about the Milgram experiments that people generally don’t know?

JS: For one thing, he ran a lot of studies manipulating things: like how much the “learner” (the person who was acting out getting the shock)—no one was ever shocked, by the way—would protest; how close the learner was to the participant who was giving them the shock; and where the experimenter was—were they in the room; were they giving orders via telephone? He tried to understand what was going on with the participant in relation to the learner in relation to the experimenter, the person who was giving the instructions that attenuated and strengthened the obedience effects. We can learn a great deal about when people defy authority figures.

Another implication of the work was that it catapulted us toward institutional review boards for research in all areas of science. It was so publicized in the press that it really was the catalyst that lead to consent forms, proper debriefing, and all kinds of rules and regulations that were adopted not just in psychology, but in all areas of science.

SSF: Do you think Milgrim himself has been unfairly thought of as sadistic?

JS: He was asked that question. He claimed that he was not, and was just trying to understand this powerful social situation. Some people criticized him for continuing to do further experiments when he knew some people felt psychologically harmed by his studies. He wasn’t criticized for initially doing the first studies; it was the fact that he kept doing them. He wrote a book about the studies and he explained his rationale and logic. By today’s standards, you can’t do those studies. Because for one thing, people did not have informed consent; they didn’t know what they were getting into. Now you have to tell people, “this is what’s going to happen,” and “you have the right to leave whenever you want.“ Those kinds of instructions were not given in Milgram’s experiments.

SSF: Can you still be somewhat manipulative today?

JS: At Santa Clara University, psychologist Jerry Burger has done the closest thing to replicating Milgram’s experiments that is ethically allowable. He gives informed consent up front, but he’s actually tried to replicate as best as possible and what he finds is that people still conform. It isn’t two-thirds of the people who conform to authority, but a large number of people do conform to authority if it’s delivered in a strong and proper way.

SSF: So Milgram’s results still hold up?

JS: Basically, yes. Within the limits of what can be done ethically today, you still find this. Burger has reported the results of his studies in the late 2000s, and you can go to the results.

SSF: Let’s turn to Zimbardo. So what’s the relationship between Milgram and Zimbardo. Is Milgram a direct predecessor?

JS: Coincidentally, they were in the same high school class. Zimbardo was doing a lot of work on what’s called de-individuation. It happens in a situation where you feel anonymous; you’re much likely to act on your impulses and not on your values and you’ll do things that you wouldn’t normally do. Consider what happens sometimes when there are riots. Most people would not break into a store in broad daylight and steal things. But in these situations, people act on their impulses, not on their values. What Zimbardo wanted to show was that when you de-individuate people, and put them in the role of prisoners and guards, you can get the guards to be sadistic and the prisoners to learn to be helpless.

SSF: Like Milgram, Zimbardo was also criticized for taking the experiment too far, right?

JS: Yes. One of Zimbardo’s graduate students pointed out six days into the experiment that what he was doing, acting as both the lead investigator and the prison warden, kept him from weighing the psychological costs on the prisoners and the guards. He was wrapped up in his role, as much as some of the prisoners and guarders, and that’s why he attributes the study going a couple days longer than it should have.

SSF: Do you think there is some danger in demonizing what these guys were doing in these movies?

JS: Well, almost no psychologist today would condone running studies like the Stanford Prison Experiment or the Milgram obedience experiments. Times have changed; ethical standards have changed; rules have changed. But one thing you have to realize is that sometimes you get the clearest view of human nature when people are in extreme situations. Sometimes the best parts of people come out in extreme situations. Schindler’s List is a great example of that. Sometimes the worst come out. The reason why everyone knows about these studies is because they reveal some important information about what people are capable of doing. And that’s important to know if you want to stop these kinds of behaviors and situations from happening in the future.

SSF: Are there studies that show the benevolent side of human nature?

JS: There is a psychologist named Daniel Batson, now at the University of Tennessee, who studied altruism for years. And his argument is that there are people who are altruistic and are not doing anything to benefit themselves or their ego. They do things for other people just to put other people in a better situation. You can’t do the Milgram or Zimbardo high-impact studies anymore: So you can’t bring people in and expose them to what they believe is a fire in a room and see if they save somebody. But what you can do is look at natural events that have occurred—plane or car crashes, real fires—and study the bystanders who did or didn’t do things in response to those calamities. And it’s pretty revealing.

SSF: What brought you to Milgram and to write that paper on his legacy?

JS: When you take psychology classes, everyone is exposed to those studies. Oftentimes, you see the videos. I remember seeing those videos and watching how uncomfortable people were while they still obeyed authority. It was a very powerful demonstration of how situations can overwhelm a person’s values, at least temporarily.

The Milgram studies were also very influential because they changed the way research was done. It’s the most famous study in the history of the social and behavioral sciences, and we wanted to trace its impact on the field. And not just what Milgram learned, but how it changed the way we did research and how it changed the way we thought about our roles as experimenters. If there is one study that had a rippling effect on many different areas of the field, it was the Milgram obedience work, and after that, the Zimbardo prison experiment.

SSF: What research are you doing now?

JS: One of the things that I do is look at social communication between couples. We have found that how couples weather stressful events, either those we create in the lab or those in their lives, such as having a baby, are managed differently with different personalities. I try to find out who is more likely to be resilient in the face of stress and what impact that has on the relationship, and who is more vulnerable to stress and is more likely to have relationship problems. That theme of stress indirectly goes back to Milgram’s work, because if you put people in a non-stressful situation, no one is going to shock anyone. It doesn’t happen. It’s only when you put people under stress that you see variations in their behavior.