In the 1960s, Stanley Milgram conducted a study on conformity to authority that is now infamous among social scientists. The study was relatively straightforward. Participants would be asked to administer shocks to another human who had performed poorly on a test. They were told that doing so could help the poor performer learn to do better. If a participant resisted administering the shocks, a member of the research team would insist that the participant continue for the good of the research. The shocks increased in intensity over the course of the study, reaching a level that could be lethal. In reality, there was no one receiving these shocks, but a paid actor would pretend to be hurt, leading the participant to believe that they had caused real harm to another real person. As a surprise to the researchers, over half of participants administered the final “lethal” shock. The findings from this study are commonly used to explain how genocides are perpetrated. Milgram and his team argued that ordinary people are willing to commit incomprehensible acts of violence so long as someone in authority assures them it is the right thing to do.
I first encountered the Milgram study as an undergrad in an introductory psychology class. By the time I graduated, I learned about the study in at least three other classes. Each time, the discussion was essentially the same. Our professor would insist that the findings from the study are important, but that the study is unethical due to the harm it caused participants. That harm was described as the emotional trauma of walking around with the knowledge that you could—and would—murder another person if someone asked you to do so. There are other ethical issues as well, including the deception used by the research team and how difficult it was for participants to withdraw their consent to be in the study, but they were also tied back to that main concern: the weight on the conscience of a participant who administered that “lethal” shock.
As a professor, I was prepared to have the same discussion with my students in Science, Power and Diversity as we discussed research ethics. But when it came time to do so, I had a different perspective on the Milgram study that comes from my own work with perpetrators of sexual violence—and how hard it is to research them.
For my first project as a graduate student, I set out to study college men’s reactions to affirmative consent policies. At the time, the idea that men had an obligation to ensure that they had their partner(s)’ enthusiastic consent was relatively new—or, at the very least, it hadn’t been articulated during first year student orientation or in a student code of conduct before. I wasn’t seeking out rapists in particular, but I did want to know which of the men who would participate in my study had committed an act of sexual violence since I imagined that would impact the way they felt about their university’s new consent policy. To do so, I wanted to use a validated and respected survey on nonconsensual sexual experiences. It ended in a final question of, “Do you think you may have ever raped someone?”
When it came time to get ethical approval for the study from my university’s IRB, it was that final question that raised the most eyebrows. The board worried that men who had raped someone would face psychological harm from identifying themselves as a rapist in a study—to be formally identified as a rapist could weigh on their conscience. Ultimately, I was not permitted to use the survey.
Even though I removed the controversial survey and completed the study years ago, I still question the validity of this decision. To my knowledge, there isn’t empirical evidence that reminding humans of their ability to harm each other is particularly hurtful. In fact, asking violent individuals to reflect on their bad acts in a therapeutic setting can be healing and change future behavior. Research studies like the one I proposed can often be a first step in connecting participants to the resources that would be of help them—including the type of counseling that has been found to offer benefits to violent offenders. I got the impression that my university’s IRB simply assumed that asking research participants to confront their own capacity for violence is inherently harmful and unethical. And, in re-watching the original Milgram footage with my students, I wondered if the board learned those assumptions from their own discussions of the Milgram study.
My study was different from the Milgram study in a lot of ways, but there was one big similarity: I, too, wanted to study people who are willing to do morally objectionable things. Like Milgram and his team, my study treated ordinary people as potential perpetrators of unthinkable violence. As the all-too-common discourse around the Milgram study played out in my classroom, I noticed just how much that component of the study became the focus of discussion. Were my students disgusted at Milgram’s research practices? Or the behavior of his participants? Would we consider the Milgram study the quintessential example of bad researcher behavior if 90% of his participants had refused to complete the requested tasks?
It’s worthwhile to consider how we can condemn Milgram’s unethical research practices without condemning research on perpetrators of violence more broadly. As professors, we need to acknowledge that some of our disgust at Milgram is actually disgust at violence. We need to ask our students to envision what responsible research on violent offenders would look like. How can we avoid deception? Ensure the freely-given consent of participants? Make it easy for participants to leave the study? Promise confidentiality? How can we learn about violence—as disgusting as it might be—while also acknowledging and honoring the humanity of violent people?
In asking these questions, we might make it easier for our students to confront violence in their own lives. When we send them the message that talking about violence is just as morally reprehensible as committing violence, that can make it hard for them to speak up when they witness violence—or experience it themselves as victims. Through the Milgram study, we have the power to engage our students in important and difficult conversations on accountability and the resources available to those who have struggled with their own violent impulses.
It’s time to change the conversation around the Milgram study. We need to improve research and dialogue on violence, not suppress it.