Immigration Officials at the Border and the Milgram Experiment

I thought immediately of the Milgram experiment when I saw this interview with Tom Homan the Acting Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In 1961 and 1962, social psychologist Stanley Milgram wanted to know if average Americans would follow the orders of an authority even if those orders led them to harm fellow research subjects. Milgram created an elaborate ruse to fool volunteers into thinking they were giving electric shocks to an accomplice of Milgram. Milgram created an experimenter role, an actor who had to learn word pairs, and the actual subject who had to teach the actor the word pairs. When the teacher thought the learner (the actor) got an answer wrong, the experiment called for the teacher to shock the learner for the wrong answer (who the teacher thought was strapped into a chair). The teacher-subject thought the shocks increased with each wrong answer until the learner finally indicated that his heart was hurting and wanted out of the experiment.

No shocks were actually being delivered. However, the teachers thought they were actually giving shocks. The experimenter was in the same room and exhorted the teacher to continue with the experiment over the loud protests of the actor-learner. Milgram’s question was: Would these average citizens continue giving what they thought was painful shocks to a helpless fellow citizen based on the direction of an authority figure?

There were various trials but about two-thirds of the subjects shocked subjects to 450 fake volts because they thought the experiment required it.

Now, ICE officials and workers at the border are refusing to take responsibility for their actions and saying that they do what they do because of the law. One of the factors that social psychologists typically point to is the defusing of responsibility. In the replication of the Milgram experiment, follow up interviews of subjects really highlighted this factor (Watch this clip to see subjects placing responsibility on the experimenters).

I realize that a person cannot just stop doing a job that is needed to support a family. However, over time, there are whistleblowing mechanisms in government and the ability to go to the press. Mr. Homan paused several times before he answered and fell back on the a frighteningly familiar rationale for doing something that has people on the right, left, and center ready to march.

How long will GOP politicians, ICE officials, and workers do what they believe their authorities tell them to do?

The Milgram experiment is an enduring caution that Americans are not immune to cruelty and defusing responsibility in ways that can lead to further tragedy. I think we are already there on the border and need to end the Administration’s zero tolerance policy now. It is inhumane.

See below for original footage of the Milgram study:

Social psychologist Jerry Burger and ABC News reported on this replication in 2007.

22 thoughts on “Immigration Officials at the Border and the Milgram Experiment”

  1. Now that Trump as relented on his inhumane policy, after weeks of claiming there nothing he could do; he was just following the law; it was all because of the democrats; etc: I’m very curious to know how many of his followers will be starting to wake up to his lies.

    I realize there are still going to be many who will ignore this inconsistency, and the fox news pundits will quietly ignore how they spread Trumps lies and say nothing. However, not all of Trump’s followers can be that blind.

    1. Don’t you just wish they were not that blind, Ken. With Faux cheerleading, they cannot see the mote in their own eyes, big as it is.

  2. So I take it that we are even more incensed at the separation of a child from parents and the killing of an unborn child through abortion as through this kind of separation?!

    1. Well, no border agents or judges have been shot or blown up over it that I know of if that is what you mean, but I’m pretty sure Franklin Graham is against abortion, so there is that. Nice attempt to distract from one issue with another. Let’s just stop caring about kids entirely until everyone figures the whole abortion thing out. That’s a great plan, Don.

  3. One significant difference between the Milgram experiment (and other variations) is they never involved children as the “victim.” Now there is still a level of rationalization going on, Homan talks about how the kids are “well-treated” (and even implies they are better off in ICE care), but I think you will find there is a limit to how far the actual ICE agents on the ground will go and that limit is far less than it would be for adults.

  4. Here’s the problem with the the interview snippet with Blitzer and Homan: Blitzer is asking about the cases where parents come across the border with their own children and are separated from their children by U.S. agents; Homan is ignoring or not hearing that question, and is answering a different question instead, involving cases where children are transported across the border by “criminal smuggling organizations.” It’s maddening that Blitzer doesn’t call out the disconnect (which is either a misunderstanding or else a deliberate deflection on Homan’s part).

    1. I believe it’s deliberate and an ‘approved talking point’. Ralph Reed just did the same thing in an online conversation with the New York Times. At one point he refers to the 2,000 kids that are separated from their families as “unaccompanied children”. Yeah, dude. They are now.

    2. Otto … hope you don’t mind my responding to you on a different blog but since Dr. Olson deleted my heads-up to you on his blog, I wanted you to see the response I made to his (rather rude?) response to you … The Rev’d Michael Truesdale

      Dr. Olson … I read Otto as only claiming that most liberal/mainline churches still attribute authority to a supernatural source (at least in their faith statements?), whereas you gave only a single example of a prominent liberal theologian who defines it unbiblically — 1) with respect, how do you therefore risk alienating an interlocutor you otherwise esteem by concluding he is “not well-versed” in theology or liberal faith? 2) aren’t we talking about what people in the liberal pews believe about (e.g.) authority, not theologians (who don’t speak for laity or denominations)?

      1. Thanks for that. Just to be clear: (a) I notice just now that I’m seeing this reply of yours on Dr. Olson’s blog (if he had deleted it, he has since then restored it); (b) it’s actually true that, relative to Dr. Olson, I am “not well-versed in the history of Christian theology or in the character of liberal/progressive Christianity,” so I have no problem with that criticism — what he said just before that was (coming from him) high praise indeed. That being said, I appreciate the points you’ve made.

        1. I found Dr. Olson’s comment somewhat condescending, so I’m glad you did not — certainly that kind of remark from someone so knowledgeable would tend to shut down further discussion! 🙂

    1. I bet a couple of years ago Sutton was claiming politicians were the agents of the devil and not god. And I’d be curious to know whether Jones ever though Obama was a muslim or if he was born in africa.

  5. I was just following orders sir was a cowardly answer in 1945 as it is in 2018. I wonder does he tuck his grand kids into bed at night? Gotta keep his job.

  6. I didn’t think of that, but I did think of the Stanford Prison Experiment while reading about the “zero tolerance” treatment of the Central American refugees.

  7. No, So-Called Precedent Trump. You are holding the children hostage, hoping to exchange them for your idiotic “wall.”

    Release the children. The US does not negotiate with terrorists.

    p.s. What Robert DeNiro said.
    p.p.s. Evangelicals still support this mad man?
    p.p.p.s. How can our fellow-citizen I.C.E. and Border Patrol agents wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and say “Yup, I’m going to do a good job at work today.”

  8. No, So-Called Precedent Trump. You are holding the children hostage, hoping to exchange them for your idiotic “wall.”

    Release the children. The US does not negotiate with terrorists.

    p.s. What Robert DeNiro said.
    p.p.s. Evangelicals still support this mad man?
    p.p.p.s. How can our fellow-citizen I.C.E. and Border Patrol agents wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and say “Yup, I’m going to do a good job at work today.”

    1. They make an idol of law and orders and ignore justice. Note the US has had a long history of separating children from their parents with slavery and with the Indian boarding school system. How easy it is to slip into old habits.

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