Obedience, Conformism, and Flesh-eating
A Meat and Dairy Industries Article from All-Creatures.org


Gracia Faye Ellwood, Peaceable Table
December 2018

Perceptive readers will already be sensing some of the parallels between Milgram’s experiments and the situation of flesh-eaters in our culture.

Milgrim experiments

Probably the best-known social science study ever performed is Stanley Milgram’s 1961-64 inquiry into obedience to authority. Milgram, who was a young professor of psychology at Yale and strongly Jewish, launched his series of experiments during the trial of Adolf Eichmann partly to gain insight into why so many ordinary Germans gave active support to the genocidal program of the Nazi regime. Was this mostly because of the German culture’s authoritarian tendencies? Were Eichmann and the other participants monsters of evil, as many thought, or were they otherwise normal people whose participation arose from something endemic in human nature? Could this sort of thing happen anywhere, even in the United States?

The basic outline of the tests was as follows: the subjects, volunteers recruited through advertisements, were told that they would be participating in an experiment to determine the effectiveness of punishment upon learning. The subject, and a supposed second subject who was in fact a confederate--a slightly rotund Irish-American accountant of genial manner--would draw slips of paper to see which one would be “teacher” and which the “learner.” The lots were rigged so that the naive subject would always draw “teacher.” In the teacher’s presence, the “experimenter,” an actor dressed in an official-looking lab coat, would strap the learner/victim into an “electric chair;” and offer the teacher a (real) sample shock of 45 volts, which is relatively mild. Then the teacher, in an adjoining room, was put before an impressive-looking “shock generator,” and told to read a series of word pairs, one of which the learner would have to respond to correctly.

Each time the learner made a mistake, the experimenter would order the teacher to press the next lever, each of which would deliver to the victim a shock of increasing intensity, ranging from 15 all the way to a very dangerous 450 volts. An appropriate noise would be heard when a lever was pressed, but in fact no shocks were actually delivered to him. However, after a certain point the victim would start to protest, finally screaming that he couldn’t stand it, demanding to be let out, in some cases saying he had a weak heart. Before the 450 volt level was reached, he would fall silent altogether. Whenever the subject showed distress and expressed a wish to stop, the “experimenter” would order him in an authoritative but unemotional voice that he had to continue, that he had no choice, and the like. Nothing was said about penalties for those who disobeyed and quit. Over time the experiment was changed in greater or lesser ways, with each variant being carried out multiple times (usually forty) so that generalizations could be safely made from subjects of different social, professional, and educational levels.

Before beginning the series of tests, Milgram described his scenario to three audiences: psychiatrists; college students; and middle-class adults of various occupations. Then each individual in the audiences filled out a form indicating at which point, if any, they themselves would break off the experiment if they were subjects. All predicted that they would do so, though at varying points, mostly low. They also were asked to predict at which point they thought most subjects would stop. In general, their response was that all subjects would break off except for perhaps one or two percent who were pathologically disturbed. Milgram expected much the same thing. These expectations were based on a view of human nature as essentially decent, and assumed that in situation when they were commanded to hurt an innocent person, subjects would operate out of this basic sense of kinship for the victim, and say no.

Milgrim experiments

Unwelcome Results

However, to Milgram’s surprise and dismay nearly two-thirds of the subjects continued to obey the experimenter all the way to the 450-volt mark. Many of these compliant folk showed signs of distress and protested the cruelty of what they were told to do, but could not bring themselves to disobey. Afterwards, each subject was given a debriefing, in which s/he was told that no shocks were actually delivered, and the compliance or disobedience s/he showed was supported.

To find out whether the rather luxurious psychology lab and the prestige of Yale were important factors in the results, for some versions of the experiment Milgram moved his operation into a plain suite in an unimpressive office building in another city, and took the vague name “Research Associates” with no reference to Yale. But these changes did not alter the results.

Some of the variants of the experiment itself, however, did. To help determine whether a tendency to sadism widespread in human nature explained the high level of compliance, in the Experiment Eleven series Milgram left the choice of voltage completely up to the subjects. Under these conditions, nearly all the subjects kept the voltage very low. Milgram concluded that sadism does not seem to be involved in any significant way. In most of the experiments, the victim was in the next room, although in some cases visible through a window. However, in Experiment Three, the victim was placed in the same room as the teacher and right beside him. When this was the case, the level of disobedience rose from thirty-seven percent to sixty.

When the shocks were delivered by the victim’s placing his hand on a plate in Experiment Four, and at a certain point the victim refused to touch the plate, the teacher was ordered to force the victim’s hand onto the plate. In this situation, disobedience rose to seventy percent. In the Experiment Seventeen series, each naive subject worked together with two others as co-teachers, the other two being confederates. At points in which the victim was complaining strenuously, one and later the other confederate would protest and defy the experimenter’s orders by getting up and taking a seat at the other side of the room, and refuse to return. With their example and support, and under their (potentially critical) observation, thirty-six of the forty subjects also defied and disobeyed. It appears that the original assumption of basic human decency is correct, but that other important factors in the situation often prevented subjects from acting on it.

Milgram was aware of important differences between the Holocaust/Shoah and his study. His subjects spent only an hour in the laboratory, whereas the Germans were immersed in a Jew-demonizing culture for years. Milgram’s subjects were told, sometimes repeatedly, that the shocks they gave would be painful to the ‘victim” but would cause no permanent damage; but most of the Germans in question, like Eichmann (pictured) knew or came to learn that they were participating, not just in deportation proceedings, but in mass murder.

The experimental subjects were prodded to go on if they became upset and wanted to stop, but no penalties were threatened; in contrast, the Germans carrying out the Final Solution knew they faced serious repercussions if they balked. For one thing, they were in or only just emerging from the Great Depression, and they badly needed to keep the jobs they got under the Nazi regime. For some, there were even more serious consequences; they risked death if the were suspected of trying to undermine the monstrous system or protest their involvement in it. These significant differences between the real and the experimental conditions couldn’t be helped; the experiments have been criticized as unethical as it was, and pressures on the subjects could not have been increased without engaging in criminal actions.

Was the knowledge of human nature gained worth the stress caused to subjects? Many observers have thought so; even many of the subjects, during a debriefing or in answer to a questionnaire sent them about a year after their participation, were grateful for what they had learned. But some observers remain convinced that the experiments were unethical.

Eating Flesh

Perceptive readers will already be sensing some of the parallels between Milgram’s experiments and the situation of flesh-eaters in our culture. (Note: although an important goal of Milgram’s study was to cast light on the involvement of ordinary Germans in the Nazi death machine, I am not venturing beyond the Milgram study to engage in comparing the Holocaust itself with the killing of animals for food.) In recent years, awareness of the violence underlying flesh consumption is reaching more and more persons in Western culture. They know that the “meat” they buy results from suffering and violent death of the unwilling and innocent, a situation out of keeping with the basic values of the the great majority, just as Milgram’s subjects knew (or rather believed) that they were hurting an innocent person. Most flesh-eaters think of themselves as decent, caring persons, but the bloodshed is out of sight, deliberately and systematically hidden, which enables them to keep eating. If the violence was happening in front of them, especially if they had to do it themselves as in the Experiment Four series, flesh-eating would very likely decline markedly.

Milgram points out that the behavior of persons in a group is influenced both by obedience and conformism: obedience to properly constituted authority, and conformism to one’s peers. These factors, especially the former, were the crucial influences that he and others he consulted initially failed to take into account in their expectations of the way subjects would act. They are important for animal advocates as well. We are more or less aware of them, but sometimes advocates do speak as though it is only self-indulgence that keeps people laying down their dollars for those shrink-wrapped styrofoam packages. There is much more going on.

baby eating chicken
The photo of the toddler eating a chicken’s leg is from the website of a nutritionist offering parents tips on getting their children to eat more flesh.

The authorities are of several kinds. Whenever we hear “But where do you get your protein?” the shadow of the white-coated physician or nutritionist, or school teacher--and before them, of the parent--falls over the diner and the table. People feel all those tall authorities just can’t be wrong, and many of the authorities themselves are equally confident. For example, a colleague of my physician is so certain that humans need meat that she has been known to get positively militant about it. Eventually she will learn how wrong she is, because the medical scene is finally changing. PT has referred previously to the Kaiser system’s detailed recommendations, since 2013, of a plant-based diet; one of the NewsNotes in this very issue mentions an editorial in The Lancet that makes the same main points. In time, the majority of medical authorities will be making more health-building (and compassionate) recommendations. Not all listeners will hear and heed--there will probably always be some flat-earthers--but when science authorities speak, most people do listen.

In the meantime, it is encouraging to remember that peers working closely with the subject, especially when their actions speak to one’s conscience as in Experiment Seventeen, can outweigh the toxic commands of authorities. We already knew that support was important to maintaining a nonviolent diet/lifestyle. When we hear that two/thirds of those who try a vegetarian or vegan diet fall away, we can’t help but suspect that they lacked the necessary support from family and friends. At least this view fits well with Milgram’s findings that about two-thirds of his subjects, despite the scruples many had, caved in to the authority of the experimenter. Those of us whose commitment is tried and tested are the peers who, even if lacking authorized medical status, can strengthen the resolve of newcomers to follow their hearts.

The brilliant Stanley Milgram’s life was cut short in 1984 during a heart attack at age fifty-one. Perhaps he had too much regard for dietary authorities, and peer support of the wrong kind.

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