It’s more than a few years since I graduated with a degree in Philosophy and Psychology, the two subjects I chose from the ghastly PPP trio of Philosophy, Psychology and Physiology (how I wish, now, that I had chosen Economics and PPE instead). Quite why the two subjects I chose were ever put together I’ll never understand. The one was entirely theoretical, the other a hotch-potch of social observation, dubious experiment, linguistic analysis and tedious stories about rats and pigeons.

From the first subject I learnt, gloriously, to know nothing at all, and from the second subject I derived merely boredom, confusion and frustration. As it happens the two faculties were more or less at war with each other (in the particularly vicious way academics go to war), the philosophers claiming, correctly, that the psychologists didn’t know what they were talking about, the psychologists babbling on regardless.


Psychology was at its worst when it strove to be the science of human behaviour. On safer ground, such as the neutral description of animal behaviour, it was merely dull, in the way that taxonomy is dull. Of all the twelve subjects on which I was examined in the summer of 1979 (a hateful two weeks that still gives me nightmares) social psychology was the most ridiculous, and by some cruel irony was the paper for which I got the highest marks.

When it confines itself to gentle observation social psychology is more or less tolerable, though English literature does the same with greater insight and wisdom. But when it attempts ‘theory’ it becomes absurd, not least when it approaches the human mind as if it is a machine. Machines are to humans what sound is to speech. We are both mind and machine, depending on how you look at us, but when we are talking ‘about’ rather than emitting sound, we are inescapably in the human world.

I remember (with some inevitable inaccuracy) a particular theory called ‘affect theory‘ (it’s even dignified with an article on Wikipedia) . One of the ideas of affect theory was that if you went around smiling all day, you would make yourself happier. ‘Happy’ and smile go together. Willing undergraduates (paid?)  reported mild mood swings after a day of parading a rictus grin. You might as well take an umbrella out in the hope of making rain.

I was thinking these thoughts when I read about a new film based on the famous experiments of social psychologist, Stanley Milgram. Milgram began his experiments in the early 1960s during the trial of the infamous Nazi  Adolf Eichmann, partly as an examination of the defence that Eichmann and millions of other Nazis ‘were simply obeying orders.’ Milgram was curious about how far ordinary volunteers (generally male and Yale undergraduates) would go if instructed by an ‘authority figure’ to administer electric shocks of increasing voltage and pain.

His approach was ingenious. A ‘learner’ (in reality an actor) was strapped to an electric shock machine and the naïve subject, the ‘teacher’, was required to teach him word pairs. Every time the learner made a mistake the teacher was instructed by the experimenter to administer a shock. As these grew in voltage with each mistake the learner cried out in pain, even begged the teacher to stop. Some stopped, but the majority went on.

The experiment was repeated all over the world with various minor variations, with both men and women as the unknowing subjects, with the learner sometimes hidden from view, sometimes not, with the experimenter present or instructing by telephone. By and large, the results were the same. The majority of unwitting subjects (the teachers) were obedient, even if the learner appeared to be suffering.

We studied these experiments as part of my psychology course, but fortunately we didn’t repeat them. I remember thinking, with horror and revulsion, how shameful it would be to be found to be obedient.  We often ask ourselves ‘How would I have behaved?’ This experiment is a way of finding out. Indeed the experiment would now be considered unethical because of the extent to which it puts an unwitting subject through the stress of the moral mill.

But apart from imposing an unexpectedly awful experience on the real subject of the experiment, what does it tell us? Can comparisons really be drawn with the obedience of Nazi functionaries? I doubt it. The ‘teacher’ in the lab, where he may subliminally be aware that no real harm is being done, isn’t the Nazi in the concentration camp, where harm and death are obvious and permanent.

And what does it tell us about legal or moral responsibility? Does it bolster or undermine the defence of ‘just obeying orders’? In my view, it is irrelevant to the issue of responsibility.

The experiment, however, was brilliant and disturbing. I won’t see the new film about Milgram – Experimenter – but I hope that it’s honest about the huge deficiencies of social psychology.

To illustrate everything that, to my mind at least, is facile and pointless in social psychology I need only quote a paragraph from the Wikipedia article on one of Milgram’s later experiments (which, without any foundation, I take to be a fair description):

Milgram developed a technique, called the “lost letter” experiment, for measuring how helpful people are to strangers who are not present, and their attitudes toward various groups. Several sealed and stamped letters are planted in public places, addressed to various entities, such as individuals, favorable organizations like medical research institutes, and stigmatized organizations such as “Friends of the Nazi Party”. Milgram found most of the letters addressed to individuals and favorable organizations were mailed, while most of those addressed to stigmatized organizations were not.

No surprise, there, I think.

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