“Experimenter:” A Film About Stanley Milgram and His Research on Obedience to Authority

Here is my review of “Experimenter,” a film about Stanley Milgram and his research on obedience to authority:


Peter Sarsgaard as Stanley Milgram in EXPERIMENTER, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

“Experimenter:”  A Review by Jay Einhorn, Ph.D., LCPC

“Experimenter,” which opened in Chicago on October 23 at the Music Box (and is available on iTunes and On Demand), interweaves the stories of Stanley Milgram’s research on obedience, together with his life and career, starting with the experiments at Yale in the early 1960s, through to the end of his life.  The film tells the stories with elegantly understated drama between the players—Milgram, played by Peter Saarsgard, his wife Alexandra, played by Winona Ryder, and the other characters.  In this, it takes the opposite approach to that of “A Dangerous Method,” the film about the relationships between Carl Jung, Sabina Spielrein, and Sigmund Freud, in which the drama between the figures became more prominent than the story of the founding of psychoanalysis (although it did point me toward the book by John Kerr on which it was based, for which I’m grateful).  It is to the credit of writer, director and producer Michael Almereyda that Milgram’s research on obedience, and what it meant for him and for us, is at the very center of “Experimenter.”

Milgram is portrayed as a rather serious academic researcher, rarely smiling, in whom deep curiosity to understand how people could commit the atrocities of the recently ended second world war coexisted comfortably with ambition to further his academic career.  As is often the case in great scientific discoveries, Milgram’s was unexpected; he thought that Americans would not give potentially injurious and even lethal shocks to fellow Americans just because they were told to by a man in a lab coat.  Once his subjects showed that they were willing to obey, he continued to study obedience to authority, using several variations on the design.  It was during this research that Adolf Eichmann was brought to trial for genocide; his defense was that he was doing what he was told to do.

Coming to Harvard after his work at Yale, Milgram’s playful side became more apparent, as he conducted research leading to the concept of “six degrees of separation.”  However, he was denied tenure under criticism for deceiving and stressing experimental subjects in his obedience research.  In the scene in which Milgram is chastised by colleagues on the tenure committee, I was reminded of the image of jackals worrying a lion, even if the jackals had doctorates and were smug in their tenured Harvard appointments, and the lion was a slender and reticent academic subordinate.  Failure to appreciate the meaning of Milgram’s work continues at the highest levels of psychology in the United States.  A colleague (who prefers to remain anonymous) observed that Milgram’s experiments in obedience illuminate the American Psychological Association’s involvement with psychological torture, and disavowal of that involvement.*  After Harvard turned him down, City Colleges of New York recruited Milgram with a full professorship and appointment as head of social psychology.

“Experimenter” is understated in its technical production, too.  The sets are not elaborate, the backgrounds to some are obviously pictures, and I wondered whether the facial hair on a couple of men was real or artificial.  This gives the impression of watching a play rather than a movie; as if to say, “We’re emphasizing the story, not the props.”  Both acting and production serve the story rather than supplanting it.

“Experimenter” raises a number of issues; most fundamentally, what does it mean to do vital, relevant scientific research into human nature?  The decision to apply the methods of science, which had been so successful in studying the natural world, to the study of human nature, was surely one of the most momentous in human history; but it left open the question of how such research was to be done.  Certainly, the stress of Milgram’s research on the people who participated in it raises important ethical issues.  Nevertheless, the depth of meaning of his research, the applicability of its results to observing and understanding human behavior, and the robustness of the findings, are in distinct contrast to the triviality, irrelevance and meaninglessness that characterize much “scientific research of human behavior.”  Milgram’s research on obedience holds up a mirror that reveals depths of the human soul that we had better take a good look at, even if we’d rather not.  Because this knowledge is vital to the survival of human souls, both individually and altogether.

Milgram died young, of a heart attack, at 51, in 1984, ten years after his book on obedience was published, when his work was achieving increasing international recognition.  I can’t help but wonder how he would have matured had he lived.  The contribution of his work is enormous.  “Experimenter” serves to remind us of it, and will help to preserve it for future generations.

* As disclosed in the independent review conducted by attorney David Hoffman.  The 500+ page report, with a 70 page executive summary, is at     http://psychcentral.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/APA-FINAL-Report-7.2.15.pdf

(Actual film from Milgram’s project is on youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vXn2SZfwuSc)

Making Sense of the APA Debacle

This is an email letter which I sent to members of the Chicago Association for Psychoanalytic Psychology, of which I’m President, about the American Psychological Association’s involvement in psychological torture and related issues.

Hi Everyone.  Here’s my July-August President’s letter.

Making Sense of the APA Debacle

I’ve been trying to get my head around the crisis in APA, to rise above the anger and sense of betrayal, to achieve some distance and perspective; what I call the “helicopter view.”  There’s a lot to process:  the Division 39 listserve is abuzz with dialog and information, the Hoffman Report is over 500 pages, and the Executive Summary alone is 72 pages long.  The report is available on the APA website (http://www.apa.org/independent-review/APA-FINAL-Report-7.2.15.pdf.

What Seems to have Happened

It looks like a small group of people in APA leadership, some more aware than others of what they were doing, in direct and/or indirect collaboration with the Department of Defense, the CIA, and the Department of Justice, modified APA’s ethical code in the post 9-11-01 period, and misused APA’s governance procedures, to confer APA approval for psychologists’ participation in psychological torture (“enhanced interrogation”), without adequate consultation of the membership for a decision of this magnitude.  There followed 14 years of cover-ups by misleading statements, executive secrecy and bullying, thwarting the attempts of colleagues, including outstanding Division 39 members, to bring this to light.  When it became national news, as part of journalist James Risen’s reporting on national security in the post 9-11-01 period (in his book, “Pay Any Price”), APA leadership, by now including officers who had not been involved in hijacking the ethical code and covering it up, commissioned an independent investigation, which produced the Hoffman Report.  And here we are.

How to Understand It

How can we understand what happened?  Some of the players in this fiasco benefitted economically.   Some may have truly believed that psychological torture was appropriate after the nation was attacked.  (it isn’t; aside from the basic humanity issue, the bad information from torture far outweighs the good, and it creates far more enemies than it disposes.  Trained military interrogators warned against it.)  The behavior of APA’s chief ethicist, who worked for the Department of Defense while in charge of ethics for APA, will probably be in future ethics textbooks.  But at the heart of this matter is the behavior of psychological leaders who lent their considerable professional stature and authority to advancing the social status of psychology at the expense of the meaning of psychology.  They wielded their power in the pursuit of power, and used it to dismiss the concerns of more conscientious colleagues with dissimulation, condescension, contempt, and/or threats.  Some of them are issuing apologies now—“I didn’t know, I trusted what I was told, I was trying to do the best for psychology”—but such explanations don’t say much for the depth of psychological knowledge and ethical discernment of some of the profession’s leading figures.  The meaning of psychology has been lost to APAs leadership, not because a small group of misled and/or unscrupulous people hijacked the national association, but because the highest psychological officials not only allowed it to happen but consistently obstructed efforts to open the matter to transparent review by the membership.  This is not about psychology, as a science and profession; it is about power.

Throughout its history, psychology has been seen as a second-class social entity.  Unlike the physical sciences and medicine, which mainly live by their results, psychology has struggled with defining what valid science and practice are, with conflicting definitions entangled in turf wars.  As psychology struggled to establish its credibility, the social status and economic viability that psychologists seek have generally been hard won by some, and elusive for many.  Even the procedure codes through which many of us earn our livings, and the catalog of mental disorders which qualify patients for our services, are still mainly written by and for physicians.  Many of APA’s real achievements have been about establishing psychologists’ eligibility to practice; through state licensure, participation in Medicare (where we are still very much second class citizens) and eligibility for insurance reimbursement; always with the fear that the rug might be pulled out from under us at any time.  (Which may have contributed to the “apparently mandatory dues for lobbying” fiasco, settled by APA, so the improper taking of member dues will be paid for by member dues and there will be no transparency or accountability for that episode.)  Even though APA is “the world’s largest association of psychologists” (Wikipedia), you can’t say that psychology has arrived under those circumstances.

Weaponizing psychology (“enhanced interrogation”), establishing a scientific foundation for practice comparable to that of medicine (“evidence-based practice,” a phrase borrowed from medicine and then perversely weaponized in the therapy turf wars), and acquiring prescriptive privileges for psychologists, have all been excluded from thoughtful and transparent consideration among the APA membership.  Instead, they have become platforms for those seeking to empower psychology into a social entity on par with medicine and the physical sciences.

Where Do We Go From Here

APA has to reconnect itself with the meaning of psychology, and it can’t do that through ethics–although we need to revise our compromised ethics–or slogans.  One of the lessons of this debacle is that there is no ethical code that can’t be usurped and undermined by a suitably motivated and empowered group.

Psychology—in its meaning as the study of human nature by methods appropriate to its subject— has acquired a great deal of knowledge about human nature, and how individuals and groups behave.  In psychoanalytic psychology, Freud, Jung, and Adler, among others, show how power can be sought and misused, for reasons which the conscious mind defends against knowing; to compensate for feelings of vulnerability and inferiority, among other reasons.  In social psychology, Hadley Cantril shows that when a group is threatened with loss of socioeconomic status, it creates conditions for totalitarian and terrorist movements to take root.  Maslow’s model of motivation shows how the same language—for example, an ethical code—can be understood very differently by people at different levels of motivation.  Behavioral psychology shows how reinforcement can shape behavior, without awareness on the part of the person(s) whose behavior is being shaped, and for which they give entirely irrelevant attributions.  Each and all of those psychological lenses bring the dynamics of this APA debacle into focus.  APA can heal itself when psychologists know more about psychology, understand it more deeply, and apply it to ourselves.