How to Be a Hero: Insight From the Milgram Experiment

02/27/2015 02:48 pm ET | Updated Apr 29, 2015

You have probably heard of Stanley Milgram. You know, the 1960s psychologist who discovered that hundreds of ordinary Americans could be directed to deliver apparently excruciating electroshocks to another ordinary volunteer, simply on the say-so of a scientist in a gray lab coat. In a series of two dozen studies lasting almost a year, Milgram systematically explored how, by making changes to the social situation -- the proximity of the shocker to the man being shocked, the presence of two scientists contradicting each other, the role of the shocker in a chain of command, et cetera -- he could cause rates of obedience to rise or plummet at will. The Milgram Obedience Experiment soon became world-famous as one of the most controversial psychological experiments of all time.

The controversy has not ended, and experts today are still hashing out what, if anything, Milgram demonstrated about the dark side of human nature: our putative propensity to blindly acquiesce to authority-directed courses of action, no matter how immoral. To what extent can social psychological findings in a Yale lab illuminate the darkest episodes of modern history, from the factory-style murder of millions of civilians in the Holocaust, to the Soviet gulag prison-camp system, the Vietnam-era My Lai massacre of hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese villagers by American soldiers and the suicide missions of the 9/11 terrorists and subsequent CIA torture tactics used on terror suspects?

Although it makes a lot of sense to spotlight conformity to the scientist's directives to continue delivering the shocks, this unilateral focus on the dark side has had the unintended effect of blinding us to one of the most obvious and inspiring features of the experiment: it also showed that hundreds of ordinary people -- though the minority of Milgram's participants -- did in fact have what it takes to stand up for what is right. Roughly one-third of the research subjects emerged from the situational crucible as heroes, armed with an uncommon competence at resisting immoral authority. Although it is statistically unlikely that you or I would emerge from one of the high-obedience versions of the experiment as a hero, we all naturally imagine that, had we participated, we would have been in the "defiant" group whose members successfully disobeyed the scientist.

What was it exactly about these people that enabled them to succeed where so many others had failed? If Milgram's scenario dramatically allowed the dark side of human nature to show itself, how had these several hundred men and women struggled against it and won? Previous research on the experiment has shown that psychological and sociological factors like personality, education, income, gender and religious affiliation are not clearly associated with either of the two outcomes. This means that, as Milgram and others argued, obedience must be understood primarily in terms of the social situation of the experiment itself rather than in terms of demographic variables. Successful resistance, the flip side of obedience, thus ought to be studied as something that some participants, but not others, were doing in their interactions with the authority figure.

Rather than speculate, I wanted to discover these actions in their natural environment of detailed and organized social interaction. With support from the National Science Foundation, I obtained copies of 117 of Milgram's original recordings from the Yale library where they are archived, and hired undergraduates at my university to start the labor-intensive process of transcribing them. I then edited the rough transcripts to accurately capture the details of how, in interaction with the scientist and the man receiving shocks, participants had actually behaved as they familiarized themselves with what the scientist wanted them to do, gradually became aware that the man was being shocked against his will and reacted in real time to the developing situation.

My findings, recently published in The British Journal of Social Psychology, can be summarized as follows. Resistance in the Milgram Experiment is highly structured, both sequentially and typologically. By "sequentially," I mean that participants found themselves in a situational dilemma. They were caught in the middle of two competing proposals for what they should do next: the scientist was directing them to continue, whereas the man being shocked was complaining and demanding to be released. This social environment of mutually opposed interactional sequences is the context in which participants initiated, and sometimes sustained, their resistance.

Resistance is also "typologically" organized: I found a small number of forms (six) that appear again and again. These can be arrayed along a continuum of explicitness, since some ways of resisting -- like remaining silent and inactive when directed to continue -- are relatively passive, whereas other ways -- like trying to stop the experiment by saying, "I don't want to do this anymore" -- are stronger, often showing the participants treating themselves as having more say-so than the scientist. The three weaker strategies that merely postpone continuation are:

(1) Remaining silent, or hesitating ("Um...")
(2) Displaying how much effort it would take to continue (groaning, sighing)
(3) Laughing

The three more assertive strategies that actively propose discontinuation are:

(4) Speaking to the man being shocked (e.g., proposing that he decide whether or not to continue)
(5) Prompting the authority figure to provide a remedy (e.g., reporting to him something about the situation that makes continuation problematic)
(6) Announcing one's inability or unwillingness to continue ("I can't/won't do this anymore")

Counterintuitively, both the "obedient" and "defiant" groups of participants used the same six resistance techniques. However, the groups radically differed in how, and how often, they used them. For instance, virtually all of the defiant participants escalated the strength of their developing resistance to the most explicit type, number 6, often using it multiple times. By contrast, only one in five of the obedient ones were so assertive, and only a handful used it more than once.

From this and other research, it's possible to summarize what makes attempted resistance successful in the Milgram scenario:

(1) Diversifying the Techniques. Rather than relying on a single strategy to counter the authority figure, defiant participants were able to use several. For example, they would justify their refusal to continue by invoking the Golden Rule and wondering what it would be like to be in the victim's shoes. Or they would treat the victim, rather than the authority, as having the right to decide whether or not to continue.

(2) Starting Early. Rather than allowing the problematic situation to become deeply entrenched, they began resisting relatively early in the experiment.

(3) Sustaining Resistance. Rather than backing down when their resistance was countered by the authority, they sustained it by trying an alternative resistance strategy. And another and another, until the authority himself backed down.

It appears, then, that a crucial ingredient in heroism has been overlooked. In addition to what individual native courage and decisiveness contribute, Milgramesque heroes have expertise at a discrete set of rhetorical skills for effectively coping with an unethical course of action directed by an authority. Moreover, this is a skill set that, once clearly identified, is easily teachable for purposes of empowering victims or potential victims of toxic authority-subordinate relationships.

Real-world situations with Milgramesque relevance may include not only the notorious political and military atrocities mentioned above, but also more commonplace events. The above findings could be usefully applied to a variety of areas of daily living such as bullying in the workplace or school, airplane crashes due to faulty pilot-copilot or pilot-tower communication, white-collar crime in business, military or government settings where "whistleblowing" is relevant and more.

In sum, what distinguishes Milgram's heroes from the rest of us is largely a teachable competency at resisting questionable authority. As with any other skill set, much (though not all) of what it takes to be a hero is effective instruction and practice.