The social psychological implications of Gibson’s ‘rhetorical’ analysis of Milgram’s classic studies on obedience

The reciprocal nature of the participant and the stooge.

The reciprocal nature of the participant and the stooge.

Stanley Milgram’s (1974) study of obedience is one of the key pieces of empirical work in experimental psychology (Gibson, 2012). Milgram’s (1974) experiments have gained notoriety since publication creating a conventional account of peoples’ ease to obey authority (Gibson, 2012). Thusly, these findings have continually snowballed throughout popular with a precipitation for sensationalism within the mainstream domain (Gibson, 2012). Additionally, Milgram’s (1974) experiments have influenced many similar experiments with the aim to facilitate the comprehension of atrocities implemented by human beings throughout history, such as; acts of terrorism, torture, genocides, and wars (Gibson, 2012). Interestingly, in more recent times, researchers (e.g. Burger, 2000; Gibson, 2012) have shown an increased interest in what they have deemed an over simplistic distillation of Milgram’s (1974) findings. Gibson (2012) was particularly interested in participants’ rhetorical discourse to extricate themselves from the somewhat disturbing nature of Milgram’s (1974) experimental situations. This essay aims to critically examine these results by looking Milgram’s (1974) theories of obedience and contrasting them with Gibson’s rhetorical discourse.


Milgram’s (1974) obedience experiments fundamentally involved conditions beginning with the participant arriving at a laboratory to take part in a study concerning the effects of punishment on learning in which they took the role of ‘teacher’ in a memory task (Gibson, 2012). Subsequently, participants’ were required to use a faux electric shock generator – which they were told (and deceived into believing) was fully functional – to produce shocks towards another individual; the ‘learner’ (confederate) in the experiment, whom the participants’ had seen being strapped into a chair in an adjacent room (Dickson, 2005). The learner (confederate) provided answers in the memory test governed by the teacher, gradually returning more and more incorrect answers, thusly compelling the participants’ to administer further shocks increasing in 15 V increments, with the highest shock being 450 V (Dickson, 2005). Furthermore, the experimenter used four standardized prompts and if they proved unsuccessful, would arbitrarily add another two prompts until the participant ceased to go on with the experiment (Gibson, 2012).


Milgram’s (1974) own attempt to theorize destructive obedience revolved around the concept of an agentic state; a power related dualism of agency – structure (Holloway, 2005). Subsequently, this account suggested that obedience relied upon individuals’ entering a psychological state in which some other agent controlled their actions and consequently losing their sense of autonomy as social beings (Reicher & Haslam, 2012). However, Nissani (1990) conducted experiments on deception in authoritative contexts and argued that the limitations of the human cognitive system meant that individuals’ could not be counted on to realize that a seemingly benevolent authority is in fact malevolent and thusly, the underlying cause for the participants’ conduct could well be conceptual and not the purported capacity for an individual to abandon their morals. In contrast, Russell (2009) suggests that Milgram’s (1974) concept of the agentic state should be replaced by what he termed a state of autonomous denial: a state of mind in which participants’ knew that they were most responsible for their own actions, but sensed the existence of opportunities that might enable them to avoid responsibility for any harm to the learner and also prevent confrontation with the experimenter. Consequently, contrasting attempts to account for whether obedient participants in fact realized that what they were doing morally remains conceptually problematic (Russell, 2009).


Furthermore, amongst Milgram’s (1974) reflections in his early papers, he refers in passing to the importance of group formation as a key psychological process in binding participants to the experimenter (Reicher & Haslam, 2012). In particular, he suggests that: ‘the changing set of spatial conditions leads to a potentially shifting set of alliances over the several experimental conditions’ (Reicher & Haslam, 2012). In other words, when the experimenter and participant are in a room together and separate from the learner, the participant was far more likely to categorize himself together with the experimenter than when all three shared the same room (Reicher & Haslam, 2012). Subsequently, with such development, it could be used more generally to explain varying patterns of social identification within the Milgram paradigm (Turner, 1991).


Unfortunately, there is only one published transcript of reaction to the final prompt of ‘you have no other choice, you must go on’ in Milgram’s (1974) studies. In the initial transcripts, the participant responds to this with ‘if this were Russia, maybe, but not in America’, in which the experiment is consequently terminated (Reicher & Haslam, 2011). However, due to Burger’s (2009) careful reproduction of the Milgrim model, more systematic evidence is provided about participants’ reactions to the last systematic prompts (Gibson, 2012). Noticeably, Burger (2009) exposed that on every single occasion when the experimenter issued the fourth prompt, participants refused to continue. Consequently, one could interpret this finding as suggesting that when the experimenter imposes themselves over the participants, this merits an understanding of their lack of shared identity, and thus, undermines the group relationship between them, and hence produces disobedience (, 2011).


Conversely, the tape archives that Gibson (2012) gained access to included audio recordings and transcripts of Milgram (1974) and his confederates discussing aspects of the experimental procedure. As a result, it was due to Gibson’s (2012) distillation of these two lines of evidence in which he argued existing attempts to account for Milgram’s (1974) findings neglected the role of rhetoric in the interactions between experimenter and participants in the studies. Also evident was a lack of rigidity in the experimenters’ standardized script (Reicher & Haslam, 2011). Thusly, the prompts were not followed as consecutively as Milgram (1974) had stated. Furthermore, the experimenter responded malleably to the rhetorical strategies marshaled by participants in their attempts to argue/shift their way out of the experimental situation (Gibson, 2012). Furthermore, at least one of the experimenters’ improvised strategies appeared to have been incorporated into the standardized set of prompts available to the experimenter (Burger, 1999). However, apparently this strategy was omitted from Milgram’s (1974) published accounts of the studies (Burger, 1999). Subsequently, Gibson (2012) has suggested that if the findings are considered in relation to work in experimental field based on the contingency of standardization, that Milgram’s studies may not have been about obedience at all. Moreover, some researchers even question whether Milgram’s (1974) study was even an experiment in the methodological sense that there was not a control group to compare with the independent variable (Motzkau, 2012).


Consequently, the data that Gibson (2012) analysed was suggestive of the importance of the rhetorical strategies used by participants in their attempts to extricate themselves from the experimental situation. Consequently, the analysis focuses on a particular example in which a participant refuses to continue unless he can receive an assurance that the learner (confederate) also wishes to continue (Gibson, 2012). So, analysis draws attention to the way in which participants could draw the experimenter into a process of negotiation over the continuation of the experimental session (Reicher & Haslam, 2011). Thusly, participants would argue and remonstrate with both the experimenter and the learner reflecting the words of the learner as a challenge and rationalization back to the experimenter (Reicher & Haslam, 2011). Subsequently, this is something, which Gibson (2012) noted could lead to quite a radical departure from the standardized experimental procedure in the sense that the participant may not be disobeying orders so much as shifting the person from whom they will take orders from. Also, these negotiations lead up to the point of the ineffectiveness of Milgram’s (1974) fourth prod (You have no other choice, you must go on) (as cited in Dickson, 2005). These observations are discussed in terms of their implications for theory and research on disobedience, with a specific focus on the concepts of choice and agency and the nature and meaning of disobedience (Gibson, 2012).


Subsequently, the participant initially negotiates and places conditions on their continued participation in the experimental session to an eventual endgame and the experimenter seeks to elicit the continued compliance of the teacher (Gibson, 2012)). Gibson (2012) honed in on an exchange in which a participant’s initial attempt to begin cessation from the experiment is notable insofar as it consists not of a straightforward request to stop or a refusal to continue, but instead is framed as a report of his current thinking (‘I don’t think I wanna, be a part of this anymore’). This is functional in the sense that it hedges the participant’s initiation of an attempt to bring about the cessation of the experiment due to the potentially life-threatening act in which they are engaging. Indeed, many authors have noted that participants often seemed to go to great lengths to appear polite in the experiments (e.g. Milgram, 1974; Russell, 2009). So, it is possible some of the participants giving in to demand charcteristics and situational factors such as politeness; awkwardness of withdrawal; absorption in the technical aspects; the tendency to attribute impersonal quality to forces that are human; a belief that the experiment serves a desirable end; the sequential nature of the action, and anxiety (Holloway, 2005; Reicher & Haslam, 2011).


Milgram’s (1974) studies are widely remembered as showing that people obey orders (Burger, 2009). However, after further dissection, it appears that one thing that they show unambiguously is that, when requests are framed as orders, people do not obey (Reicher & Haslam, 2011). Moreover, as Reicher & Haslam (2011) mentioned, this apparent anomaly is derived from a social identity/ self-categorization account that stresses that obedience is predicated upon perceptions of shared identity. Therefore, this is a direction towards enquiry into the various ways that the constitution of context impacts upon social identities and into the way in which identities influence and are influenced by moral obligations to the different individuals in the study (Reicher & Haslam, 2011). Of course, this is a post-hoc interpretation based on indirect (e.g. Burger, 1999) evidence. Accordingly, if one wanted to sustain such an argument, it would necessary to conduct further studies specifically designed to test this hypotheses (Gibson, 2012).


Fundamentally, what makes Gibson’s (2012) analysis important is due to exposition of the complexity of the interactions going on the laboratory during the experiments. These complexities are about the rhetorical or discursive interchange between the experimenter and subject and show how so-called ‘obedience’ comes about (Reicher & Haslam, 2011). But equally – Milgram (1974) explains the phenomena as structured obedience – whereas Gibson (2012) thinks of the experiments showing the participants as having agency. Thusly, this leads to the question of whether the experiment had anything to do with ‘obedience’ at all (Reicher & Haslam, 2011). Furtermore, this separates obedience from theories of social influence, which is when further complexities arise (Reicher & Haslam, 2011). As Halsam, Reicher (2011) point out the studies are as much about ‘disobedience’ as they are about compliance. Also, Milgrams’ (1974) agentic state analysis cannot account for the participants’ variance in the study. As Reicher states, there has to be a measurement of theorising about why people did not obey as much as why others did (Reicher & Haslam, 2011). Part of this is to see the studies in terms of leadership and social influence rather than as some separate phenomenon (Reicher & Haslam, 2011). Consequently, Reicher & Haslam, (2011) argue that the studies should be looked at in terms of self-categorisation theory and used the term ‘engaged followership’. Thusly, It is as much about the person as it is about the set-up of the experiment (Reicher & Haslam, 2011).


Also, meanings are always socially situated (Gergen, 1973). However, Milgram (1974) had already tailored his question to meet the obligatory settings of the laboratory conditions (Gibson, 2012). Consequently, the experiment was based on what happened when there was a conflict between obedience and the belief that one should not harm others (Gibson, 2012). Thusly, this resembles what Danziger called a low- level theory – that the meanings of obedience and disobedience to different participants are not included in the investigation, even in the brief case illustrations that Milgram provided (Reicher & Haslam, 2011). Thus the part that trust might play in obedience could be limited to varying the institutional setting from a more to a less prestigious one. Mixon’s (1977) arguments about trust raise the importance of the meaning of research scenarios and how these affect the behaviour of participants.


In conclusion, despite being psychologically tortured and deceived, a breathtakingly high number of Milgram’s participants managed to extricate themselves from Milgram’s experimental situation, all by the capacity and inclination to tentatively start arguing with the experimenter (Gibson, 2012). Subsequently, dissecting and focusing on the procedural aspects of the experiment, and, – in particular – the interaction between the experimenter, participant and learner, suggests that the conventional view of the experimental procedure as highly standardized needs to be revised (Modigliani & Rochat, 1995). Furthermore, existing analyses of the dynamics of obedience in Milgram’s (1974) experiments tend to be concerned with the occurrence (or lack of occurrence) of a psychological shift as a precursor to disobedience (Gibson, 2012). Tellingly, the present analysis points to the importance of rhetorical processes in both sustaining and challenging authority (Gibson, 2012).












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3 thoughts on “The social psychological implications of Gibson’s ‘rhetorical’ analysis of Milgram’s classic studies on obedience

  1. Always good to read thoughts on these studies. 🙂


  2. Holly says:

    Great article. I’m writing a paper around this topic, do you mind if I cite some? How would I reference you – I can’t find your name etc. Thanks 🙂


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