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Confirmation Bias

Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University

There is no better journalist in America than Andrew Ferguson, and his brilliant takedown of bad behavioral science provides yet more evidence for that claim. A passage on Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience-to-authority experiment especially caught my eye:

The results were an instant sensation. The New York Times headline told the story: “Sixty-five Percent in Test Blindly Obey Order to Inflict Pain.” Two out of three of his subjects, Milgram reported, had cranked the dial all the way up when the lab-coat guy insisted they do so. Milgram explained the moral, or lack thereof: The “chief finding” of his study, he wrote, was “the extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority.” Milgram, his admirers believed, had unmasked the Nazi within us all.

Did he? A formidable sample of more than 600 subjects took part in his original study, Milgram said. As the psychologist Gina Perry pointed out in a devastating account, Beyond the Shock Machine, the number was misleading. The 65 percent figure came from a “baseline” experiment; the 600 were spread out across more than a dozen other experiments that were variations of the baseline. A large majority of the 600 did not increase the voltage to inflict severe pain. As for the the participants in the baseline experiment who did inflict the worst shocks, they were 65 percent of a group of only 40 subjects. They were all male, most of them college students, who had been recruited through a newspaper advertisement and paid $4.50 to participate.

The famous 65 percent thus comprised 26 men. How we get from the 26 Yalies in a New Haven psych lab to the antisemitic psychosis of Nazi Germany has never been explained.

I’m interested in this because in my book on original sin I referred to Milgram’s experiments quite positively — and moreover, I never did any reading to find out whether they had been subjected to critique. I just assumed that they were universally accepted as valid. And why did I make that assumption? Because Milgram’s experiments confirmed the story I was telling about the return, in the twentieth century, of a widespread belief in human depravity.

Now, to be sure, the book by Gina Perry that Ferguson cites as authoritative on this matter has itself come under some criticism for one-sidedness; Milgram’s famous experiment may indeed hold up, at least in large part. But the point I want to make here is that I didn’t do anything to check it out — for me, the story Milgram told was too good to be false.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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