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25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Deference to Expertise?, 25 Oct 2007
This review is from: Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (Paperback)
This experiment shows that people go along too readily with an experimenter. How readily should we as readers go along with Milgram's claims? Before reaching the experiment, there's a front cover claim that this is "the unique experiment that challenged human nature" and a back cover quote that this is "one of the most significant books I have ever in more than two decades of reviewing". Then a glowing foreword then a preface in which Milgram already is already wondering if a connection exists to Nazis. So what mere mortal wouldn't already be convinced without even readng the experiment?

But we can think critically, can't we, even if we are not scientists or acclaimed writers. Otherwise, we may be as guilty of lack of responsibility as those who went ahead and shocked the learner despite his pleas. The volunteer teachers in Milgram's experiment trusted the experimenter. Are we to trust Milgram to spoon feed us his interpretations? Maybe he's right but don't concede that yet.

The volunteer can't be court-martialed, can't spend years in a prison. At most the volunteer who stopped might expect to be yelled at as he/she exited. Was the volunteer who continued acting out of obedience or because he/she gives undue respect to an apparent scientist? There seems to me a difference. In the military one is trained to obey a command from a superior no matter what the superior is like. In Milgram's experiment, he found himself that volunteers became more likely to stop when an ordinary person was in charge.

Milgram notes differences between his experiment and some military occurrences but focuses on the similarities. In doing so, he may have failed to investigate deeply the differences. Milgram himself reports that when two experimenters disagree on how to proceed, the volunteers stopped giving shocks. He interprets that as a conflict of authorities, but it can be understood by recognizing one of the experimenters was supplying information (that the shocks were indeed harmful. A judgment based on weighing inputs and not obedience may have been key.

If you read this or any other scientific book and just take the author's word for it, you may be over-esteeming authority in a rather similar way to how Milgram's volunteers over-esteemed the experimenter. When reading this book, imagine that you are unknowingly participating in a Milgram experiment to see how much you'll swallow if the author is said to be famous and the work a classic

Several chapters near the end of the book offer some speculation by Milgram as to why people "obey" to such an extent. One might accept Milgram's skill in setting up the experiments and collecting results without accepting his analysis of obedience. He appeals to "human nature", evolution and cybernetics. He invents the term "agentic state" and then discusses the acts he considered obedient in terms of this "agentic state". This is mentalism, the unscientific practice of creating fictions and locating them inside our heads. Mentalisms may be useful as a convenience for everyday conversation, but they add nothing to scientific inquiry except superfluous complication.

I'm not a social psychologist. I'm not a famous or capable author. But I'd suggest when you read this book, you'll get more out of it if you don't fall victim to Milgram's authoritative posturing. Those of Milgram's volunteers who didn't discount their own evaluation and stopped are the people I respect ... and I hope you do to. This book may be a classic, but please err by questioning it too much and not too little.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 6 Apr 2009 08:54:55 BDT
J. H. Clegg says:
A brilliant review that encourages a critical engagement with Milgram's work - and indeed any work claiming authority.

In reply to an earlier post on 7 Apr 2009 04:59:09 BDT
Last edited by the author on 7 Apr 2009 05:54:57 BDT
calmly says:
Hi J.H.: I see that, for a reason I've long forgotten (or maybe a mistake!), I gave this book 5 stars here but 3 star at At, some of those who commented (either under the review or in their own review) seemed not to have realized that I did understand what Milgram was up to but was calling his interpretation into question. But Milgram did get lots of mileage out of his interpretation! so who am I to offer an alternative one?

I notice today in the Wikipedia entry on the "Milgram experiment", that there is indeed a section on "Alternative interpretations": so I was not so amiss in suggesting there might be.

That section notes: 'In his book Irrational Exuberance Yale Finance Professor Robert Shiller argues that other factors may be partially able to explain the Milgram Experiments. "[P]eople have learned that when experts tell them something is all right, it probably is, even if it does not seem so. (In fact, it is worth noting that in this case the experimenter was indeed correct: it was all right to continue giving the 'shocks' - even though most of the subjects did not suspect the reason.)'

I posted my review on Jan. 26, 2005. The Product Page at for Irrational Exuberance indicates the hardcover edition of that book had its 2nd edition in February 22, 2005. Too bad! Schiller must have beaten me to an explanation of this kind in his 1st edition. But good for him and good confirmation for me. I wouldn't be surprised if others noticed this as well. I see that the Wikipedia entry goes on to state: "Milgram himself provides some anecdotal evidence to support this position. In his book, he quotes an exchange between a subject (Mr. Rensaleer) and the experimenter. The subject had just stopped at 255 V, and the experimenter tried to prod him on by saying 'There is no permanent tissue damage.' Mr. Rensaleer answers, 'Yes, but I know what shocks do to you. I'm an electrical engineer, and I have had shocks ... and you get real shook up by them-especially if you know the next one is coming. I'm sorry.' (Milgram, 1974a, p. 51)."

I had a special interest once in Milgram and social psychology so I had read the book attentively. I see another explanation in that Wikipedia section based on "learned helplessness" that had not occurred to me. And following from the Wikipedia entry, I see that one suggestion of "deference to expertise" as an alternation goes back to 1971 (Mixon D (1971) Beyond Deception. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 2: 145-177.)

I also had a special interest once in Alfred Jarry and Pataphysics. How little of it unfortunately I remember! But it was good to see your "Pere Ubu" review. Years ago, I used to read that play out loud for fun.

In reply to an earlier post on 2 Sep 2009 23:44:39 BDT
These are very interesting discussions and they open up interpretations and critical thinking beautifully - marketing, reviews and testimony as a form of persuasion, conditioning, coercion and more - but SM was taking people to darker places than our decision over whether to buy a book for 10. I am familiar with the experiment but will buy the book partly because of the stimulation you have provided in your review - thank you. In passing I got here after looking at The Lucifer Effect. Your thoughts on that would be fascinating but I have to go to bed! Cheers - PC
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