I thought immediately of the Milgram experiment when I saw this interview with Tom Homan the Acting Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Watch the head of ICE pause when asked by @wolfblitzer if the policy of separating children from their parents is humane. https://t.co/gX0UN7dnrW pic.twitter.com/W4rhUjiO0g
— The Situation Room (@CNNSitRoom) June 19, 2018
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.