Tag Archives: stanley milgram

The Game of Death


A colleague in the realm of Desperado Philosophy has brought to our attention a French television documentary made in 2010 titled Le Jeu de la Mort by Christophe Nick, who has since become a prominent critic of reality TV and its many brands of casual cruelty.

As a basic dramatic structure, Nick adapted Stanley Milgram’s well known obedience experiments in which “teachers” would deliver shocks to “learners”, while prompted and at times badgered by a scientist-in-situ. Interestingly, Nick claims his original inspiration for the experiment came not from his reading of Milgram but from a French version of The Weakest Link, wherein contestants are relentlessly bullied and belittled by the host, while also scratching and clawing at fellow contestants to avoid being culled from the feeble brain trust.

With the simple idea télé, c’est le pouvoir as his rather banal point de départ, Nick then sets out to discover whether that power is sufficient to cajole or compel ordinary citizens to become willing or at least obedient torturers, in public and on national television, and without any monetary incentive. With blinking lights, sexy helpers, a perky/pushy host, roaming cameras, and an audience shouting encouragement, the scenario has an air of inevitability about it, and indeed Nick solicits the proof that he set out to find: 64 out of 80 contestants deliver the full Monty throttle of 460 volts, at which point the victim – quite convincingly performed by an actor – no longer screams but slumps in the chair, ominously silent.

Voiceovers and expert commentary leave little to the imagination, as the basic structure of scripted subservience plays itself out over and over accompanied by a music pastiche that gropes for all the expected emotive buttons.

In post-mortem remarks, Nick said: They are not equipped to disobey. They don’t want to do it, they try to convince the authority figure that they should stop, but they don’t manage to. Indeed there was one contestant whose Jewish grandparents had been tortured by the Nazis. She had wondered all her life how the Nazis could perform such atrocities, yet now she has inflicted the same sort of pain upon a perfect stranger: I was worried about the contestant, but at the same time, I was afraid to spoil the program.


In the process of informing contestants that they had been lured into his scenario via the false premiss of a game show audition, and securing their permission for the film, Nick assured one and all that they had performed “normally”, and – sounding just like Philip Zimbardo – that the context of the situation was responsible for their actions; within his simulacrum of torture, they were not guilty, two thumbs up. Nick reports that most of them are thrilled to have participated in an experiment that could be useful for something, and some of them are ready to do it all over again. 

As we contemplate this dreary episode, in which both the subject and the object of critique become unified in the expression of some far deeper truth that is, however, never allowed to push through the totalizing aesthetic of the film itself, we recall the words of Gitta Sereny, who spent seventy hours with Franz Stangl, Kommandant of Sobibor and Treblinka; Gitta Sereny, who wrote in her beautiful and moving epilogue: This [essential core], however, cannot come into being or exist in a vacuum. It is deeply vulnerable and profoundly dependent on a climate of life; on freedom in the deepest sense; not license, but freedom to grow: within family, within community, within nations, and within human society as a whole.


Agents in the Dark Wood

The year 1974 saw the appearance of two remarkably different explorations of the tense interplay between conscience and obedience, with the horrific experience of Nazi Germany offering historical background for both books: Stanley Milgram’s Obedience To Authority and Gitta Sereny’s Into That Darkness. However entangled their subjects may be, the subtitles reveal strikingly different ambitions, for while Milgram proposes “an experimental view”, Sereny sets forth on “an examination of conscience”. Inside the dark wood of morally compromised obedience, these two paths will lead us into very different places.

In his first chapter, Milgram makes clear the underlying motivation for his lengthy series of obedience experiments, which began shortly after the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961:

It has been reliably established that from 1933 to 1945 millions of innocent people were systematically slaughtered on command. Gas chambers were built, death camps were guarded, daily quotas of corpses were produced with the same efficiency as the manufacture of appliances. These inhumane policies may have originated in the mind of a single person, but they could only have been carried out on a massive scale if a very large number of people obeyed orders.

Consistent with the parameters of the experiments, a summary exposition of which occupies his first nine chapters, Milgram introduces the problem of individual conscience within the context of systems theory:

The presence of conscience in men can be seen as a special case of the more general principle that any self-regulating automaton must have an inhibitor to check its actions against its own kind, for without such inhibition, several automata cannot occupy a common territory.

He next discusses the problems posed by such an inhibitor when placed within the hierarchy of complex systems, whereby efficient and preferably immediate compliance best achieves the objectives of the system:

Therefore, when the individual is working on his own, conscience is brought into play. But when he functions in an organizational mode, directions that come from the higher-level component are not assessed against the internal standards of moral judgement. Only impulses generated within the individual, in the autonomous mode, are so checked and regulated.

Because being part of the system assures survival and delivers numerous other secondary benefits to the individual, potentially disruptive autonomy is “checked”, identity becomes “agentic”, and the individual will thereby execute the commands of superiors within the hierarchy, free from the cumbersome inhibitions of conscience:

From a subjective standpoint, a person is in a state of agency when he defines himself in a special situation in a manner that renders him open to regulation by a person of higher status. In this condition, the individual no longer views himself as responsible for his own actions but defines himself as an instrument for carrying out the wishes of others. 

When morally or ethically disturbing consequences of actions come into conflict with the imperatives of the agentic self, undermining the strength of “binding factors”, strains then emerge within the system. Such strains are resolved first through expression of dissent and then, if left unresolved, by outright rejection of the hierarchy through explicit acts of disobedience.


Now let us enter Gitta Sereny’s Into That Darkness, her prolonged examination of the conscience of one such agentic self: Franz Stangl, Kommandant of Sobibor and Treblinka, with prior experience in the Tiergarten Euthanasia Program. Sereny spent seventy hours talking with Stangl in a style that might best be described as empathic interrogation, her subtle intelligence slowly penetrating elaborately entrenched defenses, present since childhood yet perfected in the camps. She then spent eighteen months examining documents and cross-checking Stangl’s account of himself with Treblinka survivors and other witnesses, including his wife, Theresa, who had consistently urged dissent and disobedience, with little effect on agent Stangl. Over the course of the examination, Sereny leaves no doubt about what happens to a buried conscience: it rots.


Assigned to the point of maximum strain within the tight binders of the Nazi hierarchy, Stangl managed the messy business of genocidal extermination, applying his considerable administrative and creative talents to the task, details of which are exhaustively recorded by Sereny. Like so many before him, Stangl later tried to defend himself by claiming, in Milgram’s terms, that his autonomous self was absent from the scene, and that he was present only as an agentic functionary, performing his assigned duty within the hierarchy with the same professional diligence he would bring to any assignment:

FS     It was a matter of survival – always of survival. What I had to do, while I continued my efforts to get out, was to limit my own actions to what I – in my own conscience – could answer for. At police training school they taught us (…) that the definition of a crime must meet four requirements: there has to be a subject, an object, an action and an intent. If any of these four elements are missing, then we are not dealing with a punishable offense.

GS      I can’t see how you could possibly apply this concept to the situation?

FS      That’s what I am trying to explain to you; the only way I could live was by compartmentalizing my thinking. By doing this I could apply it to my own situation; if the ‘subject’ was the government, the ‘object’ the Jews, and the ‘action’ the gassings, then I could tell myself that for me the fourth element, ‘intent’ [he called it ‘free will’] was missing.

Yet Sereny does not let the schematic flow chart of such well worn defenses stand uncontested. Like a forensic anthropologist delicately yet firmly exposing the contours of a disappeared corpse, she enters into the death pit of Stangl’s conscience to assemble, fragment by fragment, the awful evidence of his guilt. There is so much to be said about this remarkable book, and the rare interlocutory skill of its author; I am sure to return to her often in months to come. For now, though, consider Stangl’s final – halting – confession, the extraordinary “farewell” exchange with Sereny whereby his “agentic self” finally gives up the ghost; for the first and only time, the former Kommandant Stangl comes face to face with the gaping oblivion of his own existential responsibility. In the interest of placing maximum focus on the power of Sereny’s interrogation, I have removed all narrative linkages, leaving only the bare transcript of their dialogue:

GS      In retrospect, do you think there was any conceivable sense to this horror?

FS      Yes, I am sure there was. Perhaps the Jews were meant to have this enormous jolt to pull them together, to create a people, to identify themselves with each other.

GS      Do you think that that time in Poland taught you anything?

FS      Yes. That everything human has its origin in human weakness.

GS      You said before that you thought perhaps the Jews were “meant” to have this “enormous jolt”; when you say “meant to” – are you speaking of God?

FS      Yes.

GS      What is God?

FS      God is everything higher I cannot understand but only believe.

GS      Was God in Treblinka?

FS      Yes, otherwise how could it have happened?

GS      But isn’t God good?

FS      No. I wouldn’t say that. He is good and bad. But then, laws are made by men; and faith in God too depends on men – so that doesn’t prove much of anything, does it? The only thing is, there are things which are inexplicable by science, so there must be something beyond man. Tell me though, if a man has a goal he calls God, what can he do to achieve it? Do you know?

GS      Don’t you think it differs for each man? In your case, could it be to seek truth?

FS      Truth?

GS      Well, to face up to yourself? Perhaps as a start, just about what you have been trying to do in these past weeks?

FS      My conscience is clear about what I did, myself. But I was there. So yes, in reality I share the guilt … Because my guilt … my guilt … only now in these talks …  now that I have talked about it all for the first time …  My guilt is that I am still here. That is my guilt. 

GS      Still here?

FS      I should have died. That was my guilt. 

GS     Do you mean you should have died, or you should have had the courage to die?

FS      You can put it like that.


GS      Well, you say that now, but then?

FS      That is true. I did have another twenty years – twenty good years. But believe me, now I would have preferred to die rather than this. And anyway – it is enough now. I want to carry through these talks we are having and then – let it be finished. Let there be an end. 

Nineteen hours after confronting the truth for the first time, Franz Stangl was dead of a heart attack. In her epilogue, Gitta Sereny, clearly shaken by her journey into the grave corruption of Stangl’s subjectivity, offers a few tentative conclusions of the sort that do not lend themselves to neat formulae or flow charts, conclusions that remain as timely today as the day she wrote them:

I do not believe that all men are equal, for what we are above all other things, is individual and different. But individuality and difference are not only due to the talents we happen to be born with. They depend as much on the extent to which we are allowed to expand in freedom. 

There is an as yet ill-defined, little-understood essential core to our being which, given this freedom, comes into its own, almost like birth, and which separates or even liberates us from intrinsic influences, and thereafter determines our moral conduct and growth. A moral monster, I believe, is not born, but is produced by interference with this growth. (…)

This essence, however, cannot come into being or exist in a vacuum. It is deeply vulnerable and profoundly dependent on a climate of life; on freedom in the deepest sense; not license, but freedom to grow: within family, within community, within nations, and within human society as a whole.

The Mean Maxima


In the pilot study for Stanley Milgram’s famous Obedience experiments, the subject could dimly perceive the victim “learner” receiving his measured voltage of electric shock through silvered glass. The visible discomfort of the victim appeared to unnerve the subject, a behavior that Milgram wished to explore more deeply. To better understand the impact of proximity on the subject’s propensity to deliver maximum volts to the body of the victim, Milgram designed four different scenarios:

In Experiment 1, the victim sat in a remote location, invisible to the subject. At 300 volts, the victim was instructed to pound on the wall. After 315 volts, the pounding would stop.

In Experiment 2, the ability to perceive vocal feedback was added to the scene. No more pounding, just yells and other audible responses from the victim.

Experiment 3 made the relationship physically proximate, and the victim was in the same room, visible as well as audible.

Finally, in Experiment 4, physical contact between the subject and the victim was required for the delivery of the shock, via forced placement of the victim’s hand on a shock plate.

In all four experimental situations, the role of the victim is performed not by an actor but by a volunteer who usually works as an accountant. He has been trained by the psychologist Milgram to simulate gradually increasing distress.

The results are summarized in a graph recording mean maximum shocks throughout the proximity series, data that indicates a significantly reduced willingness to inflict pain as the physical relationship between subject and victim becomes more close. 


Inside a different sort of laboratory across the Atlantic in London, at roughly the same time that Stanley Milgram was meticulously accumulating his proximity data, another researcher with a deep interest in the interplay between human conscience and the behavior of bodies in tight spaces observes the young Glenda Jackson using her hair as a whip. The researcher’s name is Peter Brook, and he is in the midst of rehearsing the Peter Weiss play, Marat/Sade, for its English language premier.

The setting is the asylum of Charenton, and the script indicates a “many stranded whip”. Brook has decided to take this idea and make it part of the actor’s body. Patrick McGee receives the whipping; Brook observes the rhythms of Jackson’s lashings carefully, as that rhythm will provide a sort of narcoleptic metronome for one of the most important speeches in the play. Jackson will play the asylum patient who in turn plays CORDAY, with McGee playing SADE, who serves as both director and victim within the scene. In the 1967 film version, here is how the experiment played out:


The basic scenario unfolds as follows:

A pudgy middle aged man sits on a chair in a small room. Across the room, a teenaged girl stands still, wearing a dirty apron to cover her naked body. She looks scared. The man is talking to someone on the phone. He claims to be a police officer. Or a director of Homeland Security. Or an agent of the Permanent Emergency.

The voice on the phone claims the girl is a thief. Or a terrorist. Or a sympathizer with the terrorists. Or a law abiding protestor who carries within her the potential for future violence. He tells the girl to take off the apron; he needs to inspect her. He tells her to come closer, so he can see. He tells her she is hiding something from the law. In a body cavity. He tells her to jump up and down. She looks terrified.

He tells her to perform jumping jacks. Nothing falls out from her body cavities. So he tells her she needs to come closer. He needs to have a closer look. To make sure she has no secrets. She now trembles with fear, weeping.

He inspects her, touches her. He tells her to call him “sir”. She refuses. The voice on the phone tells him she is a bad girl. Disrespectful of his authority. He must spank her, to restore her obedience.

The man spanks the girl, tentatively at first, until he gets the feel of it. Then he spanks with abandon, producing bright red welts – hand prints – on her flesh; her painful cries fill the room. The man is very close now, groping her, using her. He is not a pudgy puppet anymore. He is his own man, serving his own needs. He forces her head into his lap. The search is now officially over; the rape has begun. The voice on the phone goes mute yet the caller listens intently, satisfied with how the basic scenario has played out.

The victim is no longer in the room. She has gone somewhere else. Somewhere she can be safe. Somewhere, she will survive.

Conclusion: There are certain conditions in which the inverse relationship between proximity to the victim and the propensity to inflict pain does not apply. Under these conditions, we can expect to see an intensification of abuse as the victim is stripped of corporeal privacy and sexual autonomy. Let us call these conditions TORTURE. 


The Obedience Box

In May 1960, the former Nazi SS officer Adolf Eichmann was abducted by the Israeli Secret Service, strapped into a seat on an El-Al commercial flight and taken to Israel, where he would then be tried and sentenced to death for his instrumental role in the murder of six million Jews.

Eichmann began his career with the feared Nazi SS Sicherheitsdienst as a file clerk, constructing a detailed data base on Freemasons. Eventually, he was appointed director of the so-called Scientific Museum of Jewish Affairs, where he managed a massive extortion racket, extracting the wealth of Austrian Jews in exchange for their safe passage out of Austria. His subsequent recommendation for the deportation of European Jews to the island of Madagascar was not approved.


Eichmann served as recording secretary for the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, after which he was appointed transport administrator for the Final Solution. The former file clerk thereby became responsible for the collection, sorting and delivery of six million human “packages” to the death camps, a thanato-logistical network requiring both scrupulous attention to detail and absolute ideological commitment to the ultimate objective.


In 1961, the distinguished political philosopher Hannah Arendt persuaded New Yorker magazine to assign her as correspondent for the trial, resulting in a series of reports that were later published as a book, Eichmann in Jerusalem with its resonant and provocative subtitle, A Report on the Banality of Evil. Arendt observed an unimpressive everyman sitting inside a bullet proof glass box. Fidgeting with a pencil and fiddling with his glasses, he looked to her like a postal clerk, a typical German civil servant.

Elsewhere in 1961, a Yale psychologist named Stanley Milgram began a lengthy series of behavioral experiments designed to explore the limits of obedience within a situation defined by both power and authority. As he writes in his 1974 summary opus Obedience To Authority:

Two people come to a psychology laboratory to take part in a study of memory and learning. One of them is designated as a “teacher” and the other a “learner .” The experimenter explains that the study is concerned with the effects of punishment on learning. The learner is conducted into a room, seated in a chair, his arms strapped to prevent excessive movement, and an electrode attached to his wrist. He is told that he is to learn a list of word pairs; whenever he makes an error, he will receive electric shocks of increasing intensity.


The real focus of the experiment is the teacher. After watching the learner being strapped into place, he is taken into the main experimental room and seated before an impressive shock generator. Its main feature is a horizontal line of thirty switches, ranging from 15 volts to 450 volts, in 15-volt increments. There are also verbal designations which range from SLIGHT SHOCK to DANGER-SEVERE SHOCK. The teacher is told that he is to administer the learning test to the man in the other room. When the learner responds correctly, the teacher moves on to the next item; when the other man gives an incorrect answer, the teacher is to give him an electric shock. He is to start at the lowest shock level (15 volts) and to increase the level each time the man makes an error, going through 30 volts, 45 volts, and so on.

The “teacher” is a genuinely naive subject who has come to the laboratory to participate in an experiment. The learner, or victim, is an actor who actually receives no shock at all. The point of the experiment is to see how far a person will proceed in a concrete and measurable situation in which he is ordered to inflict increasing pain on a protesting victim. At what point will the subject refuse to obey the experimenter?

Unable to perceive an exit from the tightly controlled situation, though often clearly suffering severe distress, the majority of Teachers in the study eventually delivered shocks to the Learners, all the way to the maximum danger level.

While openly acknowledging the massive historical difference between the German death network and his Yale psychology lab, Milgram references Arendt’s phrase “the banality of evil” as a concise way of capturing the human proclivity to perform the most morally abhorrent deeds when such deeds are perceived to be obligations within tightly defined and contractual roles, monitored and reinforced by a clearly recognized authority.


In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt had written in 1963:

“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.” 

A year later, Leonard Cohen released a collection of poems titled Flowers For Hitler, including:

All There Is to Know about Adolf Eichmann

EYES: Medium
HAIR: Medium
WEIGHT: Medium
HEIGHT: Medium

What did you expect?
Oversize incisors?
Green saliva?



In May 2011, Eichmann’s bullet proof box was transported to Berlin for the first time, to feature in an exhibition within the Topography of Terror on the exact site of the former Reich Main Security Office, where memory traces of Eichmann’s DNA might still be detected. The exhibition questions Arendt’s analysis of Eichmann as the embodiment of her phrase “banality of evil”, contending that as a high ranking official in the SS and underling to genocidal fanatics such as Heydrich and Himmler, he was a true believer motivated not just by duty but by conviction. Letter perfect in his role as recording secretary in the formulation of the Final Solution, he then pursued its practical application with ideological fervor. Neither obedient civil servant nor the human embodiment of demonic evil, Eichmann was rather a remorseless Nazi fully conscious of his role within the meticulously networked death machine.  An annotated map charts Eichmann’s business trips to sites like Auschwitz, Sobibor and Treblinka, to assess efficiency at the sites where packages became corpses.

The exhibition points out that Arendt did not attend the entire trial, and thus did not witness the unraveling of Eichmann’s “just following orders” defense upon being confronted with evidence of his interview by fellow ex-Nazi Willem Stassen, during which Eichmann told Stassen that he regretted not having exterminated even more fervently: I could have done more and should have done more. Meanwhile, Eichmann’s bullet proof box has returned to Israel, and Stanley Milgram’s obedience box remains on display inside the University of Akron’s Center for the History of Psychology: