The window in the laboratory
In his ‘obedience to authority’ experiments, Stanley Milgram took on the dual roles of scientific investigator and documentary filmmaker. Given his deep and abiding interest in the arts, especially film and photography, this is perhaps not surprising. Indeed, Milgram used visual media as a tool of investigation and dissemination throughout his career. In 1965 he presented his film Obedience as visual evidence in support of his ‘obedience to authority’ paradigm. Until recently the film was viewed as the simple, artless record of an experiment. Yet it is far from straightforward or objective documentation; the film was scripted, shot and edited to create a particular visual narrative of obedience. This article examines the construction of Stanley Milgram’s documentary Obedience.
It’s 2009. A gameshow studio audience clap hands and shout ‘Punishment!’ We cut to 1965 and grainy black and white. An obedient participant in Milgram’s Obedience (1965) pushes the lever to inflict an electric shock. Then back to the studio where a participant in the French reality show Game of Death faces a shock-machine that looks like it came straight out of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. In a scene from the 2006 documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room we cut to another subject in Obedience. As he pushes the lever, cars smash into each other on a Los Angeles freeway. The shock-waves of Obedience are still being felt decades after Stanley Milgram’s experimental trials and the film that authored his findings.
Obedience is one of the most influential educational documentaries ever produced: broadcast numerous times on television, screened almost continuously in lecture halls, and the inspiration for numerous plays, novels, fiction films and TV adaptations. In recent years, clips from the film have been used to support the theses of a number of high-profile television documentaries. Typically, they report the best-known findings of Milgram’s obedience paradigm (what has come to be known as the baseline condition) in which 65 per cent of people will inflict harmful shocks on another human being when requested to do so by a legitimate authority.
Whilst Milgram’s experimental work as a social psychologist is much discussed, his body of work as a dramatist and filmmaker is relatively unacknowledged. In particular, his best-known film Obedience is usually described as observational footage of a scientific experiment and is rarely discussed in the light of its writer and director’s aesthetic choices. This is largely because observational documentary filmmaking is typically thought of as unmediated recordings of real events that provide us with a ‘window on the world’. While I think there are good reasons to question Obedience’s status as the literal record of a scientific experiment, it is strikingly successful as a hybrid, a work which combines drama and documentary, the scripted and the real. Milgram himself termed it a laboratory drama.
A deep interest in film, music and the arts permeates Stanley Milgram’s writings. Alexandra Milgram has described her husband’s passion for music, the visual arts, opera and film and his later collaborations with filmmaker Harry From (A. Milgram, 2000, and this issue). He described his studies on conformity and obedience, for example, as ‘variations’ on those of Solomon Asch, ‘variations in the musical sense of the term, the way Brahms wrote variations on Haydn’ (S. Milgram, 2010, p.196). Milgram’s interest was in ‘detailed filmic documentation of behavior enacted under the illusion of being ephemeral and unobserved’ (S. Milgram, 2010, p.332).
Milgram’s skill as a dramatist is evident in the scenario which underlies his ‘obedience to authority’ experiments and film. He wrote that his aim was to combine elements of science and art. Indeed, he traced the beginnings of his ‘Obedience to Authority’ scenario to a short story he wrote as an undergraduate. The story concerned two men told by a clerk that their execution had been scheduled for that day and offered two alternative methods. One entered into negotiation about the means of execution, the other simply left (Milgram 2010). Milgram described the experimental scenario he devised as a relatively simple one: ‘a person comes to a laboratory and is asked to carry out a series of acts that come increasingly into conflict with his conscience’ (S. Milgram, 1974, p.3). Yet within a short time, people experience such strain that they sweat, tremble, groan, laugh nervously, turn away or resolutely fold their arms. This is the stuff of drama, it makes compelling viewing. It was carefully modulated – since too little conflict would not provide the tragic tension that fuels drama (Reicher & Haslam, 2011; Russell, 2011). And as Aristotle wrote, it is tragedy – and Obedience provides us with a tragic plot – that leads to maximum emotional catharsis for audiences, allowing us to feel pity and fear for ‘someone like us’ (Aristotle, 1996 version).
As Milgram observed, the dilemma of whether to obey orders that are in conflict with one’s conscience had been argued by Plato and dramatised since Antoigne. Milgram’s achievement was to transpose this drama into a laboratory setting where it could be systematically studied. His ‘obedience to authority’ scenario was partly inspired by the work of Allen Funt, the founder of Candid Camera who was interested in the dilemmas of ordinary citizens. However, Obedience is both like and unlike Candid Camera. The long-running and popular television series placed people in surprising situations and filmed the – usually comic – results. As an experimental social psychologist, Milgram shared the Candid Camera producers’ interest in constructing and filming situations from everyday life. This allowed him to observe how people actually behaved, rather than how they thought or hoped they might behave. But the similarities ended there. Candid Camera’s bottom line was a commercial one while social psychologists aimed to illuminate aspects human behaviour that mattered.
As Milgram wrote: ‘Candid Camera shares with social psychology the observation of behavior within constructed situations, but social psychologists make use of experimental variation, in which one systematically alters the situation to find the cause of behavior. Moreover, an experiment must have a certain degree of precision and control’ (S. Milgram & Sabini, 1979, p.74)
Obedience was shot over a weekend in May 1962 at the conclusion of several years of trials and official experiments. Milgram staged a version especially for the camera, running a variation he called Condition 25. In his narration for the film, he states ‘The victim’s protests could be heard through the walls of the laboratory. This condition is depicted in the present film’. The non-professional actors that the psychologist cast as Experimenter and Learner were well-acquainted with their roles; not only had they rehearsed for two weeks before the commencement of the official ‘obedience to authority’ trials in 1961, but they had been performing the same roles in a scenario staged with approximately a thousand participants. Obedience was shot on 16mm black and white film through a window in the laboratory. For the audience, it replicates the position of observing from behind a one-way mirror, as did Milgram as investigator. The camera was in a relatively fixed position, without much latitude for re-framing, close-ups, or subjective points of view. As the audience we watch the participants experience considerable discomfort. Indeed, to some extent we are complicit, unable to call a halt to proceedings.
Milgram was awarded a National Science Foundation grant in 1963 to write up the findings of the Obedience trials and the grant included an allocation to edit his raw footage into an educational documentary. He employed Christopher Johnson, a postgraduate interested in filmmaking, to make notes on the film rushes and how they might be edited (McCarthy, 2008).
Johnson’s notes focus on the performances of the subjects and the best examples of obedient and disobedient subjects. His comments included, for example: ‘On this first defiant subject – his performance is fair – not terribly interesting – not terribly dull.’ He approved of the degree of tension captured on film and suggested that the shock machine needed to loom large in order to show how difficult it was to break-off the experiment. Johnson was critical of Milgram’s on-camera performance as he debriefed the subjects. ‘I don’t like Milgram’s appearance in the interview. Though some of the remarks are fair.’ Later, Johnson notes: ‘Milgram’s questions generally good – except, of course, when he is seen.’ The 45-minute film was completed in 1965, suggesting an extended editing period for an educational documentary. Ultimately, Milgram narrated the film but did not include any footage of himself on screen.
The credits for Obedience play an important role in its presentation as scientific evidence. The film opens with a black and white graphic of overlapping circles and a super-imposed title: ‘Research carried out at Yale University under grants from the National Science Foundation.’ The next presentation credit reads ‘Chief Investigator: Stanley Milgram’. Although Milgram did not credit himself as writer or director, he clearly performed both roles, devising the scenario and overseeing all creative aspects of the production from scripting through to post-production.
Yet, the sole presentation credit of ‘Chief Investigator: Stanley Milgram’, confers the documentary with much more authority. Milgram, too, initially drafted the following for the film’s end credits: ‘In the interests of coherence, the experiment has been greatly condensed and some staged material has been included. The performances of the subjects, however, are spontaneous and unrehearsed.’ He later dropped the reference to staged material.
Nestar Russell, who traced the origins and early evolution of Milgram’s experiments, pointed to Milgram’s gradual realisation of the importance of developing an experiment that would produce an eye-catching result in its first official publication (Russell, 2011, and see www.bps.org.uk/nestar). Milgram’s aim was to produce maximum obedience, and the baseline condition is the only one he chose to film. Obedience briefly discusses other experimental conditions – noting that in one condition, 90 per cent of subjects disobeyed – through a montage of stills and narration. However, this sequence has very little impact in comparison to the live action footage.
Experiment as laboratory drama
In the late 1970s, Milgram argued that all social psychology experiments have a dramatic component: ‘In the best experiments the subjects are brought into a dramaturgical situation in which the script is only partly written; it is the subject’s actions that complete the script, providing the information sought by the investigator’ (S. Milgram, 2010, p.182).
Obedience was Milgram’s first film. He went on to write and produce a series of five social psychology documentaries in collaboration with his former postgraduate student Harry From. The latter had trained as a filmmaker in Israel and Budapest before undertaking doctoral work in social psychology (Blass, 2004). The programmes focused on topics such as the city and the self, conformity and independence, aggression and non-verbal behaviour. While the films are well produced and edited and move at a brisk pace, they are more traditional instructional films than Obedience and are used primarily in educational settings. Their reconstructions of landmark studies such as Asch’s conformity experiment, however, have proved a valuable resource for film and programme makers ever since.
Obedience provided the vision for Milgram’s attempts to explain his findings. Indeed, in the popular imagination, Obedience and the ‘obedience to authority’ trials have become conflated and are now one and the same, despite the fact that the film only provides substantial documentation of one condition out of more than 20 that were investigated. Milgram’s documentaries and thoughtful writings on film, television and photography point to the value of narrative and audio-visual methods of research. The Obedience footage, however, does not support his claim that people ‘mindlessly follow authority’. On the contrary, it provides detailed audio-visual evidence that people experience considerable strain and anguish in following orders that conflict with their own consciences.
Obedience is as much art as science, as much drama as experiment. It was carefully art-directed, scripted, shot and edited to accentuate dramatic tension within a seemingly neutral setting. These are compelling images constructed by an accomplished dramatist and filmmaker. They provide not so much a window on the world as a window on Milgram’s laboratory and post-World War II America. Milgram constructed his film as a visual narrative of obedience. But Obedience also provides us with filmed records of human behaviour that, as Milgram himself claimed, could be constantly re-analysed and reinterpreted. Stripped of their narration track and all the other post-production devices, these images tell a different story. They tell a story as much about disobedience as obedience, as much about resistance as conformity.
Kathryn Millard is an independent filmmaker and is Research Director at the Department of Media, Music, Communication and Cultural Studies at Macquarie University
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