The Director of a New Film About the Milgram Experiment Explains What Inspired Him

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53rd New York Film Festival - "Experimenter"
Michael Almereyda.Photo: Steven A Henry/WireImage

If you’ve taken psychology 101, you’ve heard the name Stanley Milgram. In 1961 he conducted a series of experiments at Yale about the terrifying power of obedience that made him famous but also turned him into one of the most controversial scientists in history. The results of his experiments echoed through the decades, and they’re now the subject of a newly released film.

Film director Michael Almereyda first became interested in Milgram when he heard about a college class in which Milgram was the sole subject and his bookObedience to Authority, the only textbook. Almereyda’s film, Experimenter, which screened at the New York Film Festival Tuesday night, chronicles Milgram’s life starting with the Yale experiments, which overshadowed him for the rest of his career. Almereyda makes this point in the movie via a large CGI elephant that follows Milgram through Yale’s halls. As he put it last night at a preparty hosted by Montblanc and the Cinema Society, “The culture is haunted by these experiments because of what they suggest about human nature.”

The setup for the experiments, as described in Milgram’s paper "Behavioral Study of Obedience," goes like this: A subject enters the lab with another person (a confederate) they believe is also a subject. The confederate is assigned the role of learner, and the subject is teacher. The two are put in separate rooms, and the learner has to memorize a long list of word pairings. Then the teacher reads each word and a list of pairing options to the learner, and the learner must match them correctly or receive an electric shock. The shocks increase in voltage each time, and eventually the accomplice (whom the teacher can’t see) screams for the experiment to stop.

Even though the “learner” appeared to be in pain (he had actually been instructed to simply act like he was in pain), almost every subject in the teacher role administered shocks of increasing intensity until the end of the experiment. If a subject expressed concern, they were fed lines like “the experiment requires that you continue” by a lab-coated supervisor in the room with them — they were never explicitly told they couldn’t quit, but rather that it would disrupt the experiment. Milgram and his team tried changing the conditions (putting the accomplice and subject in the same room, moving to a shabbier venue, including women), but each time the results were the same: People didn’t seem able to resist authority, no matter their personal qualms.

[Milgram] introduced a series of questions about how much of conscience is a stable force in a person’s personality,” Almereyda said. “The experiments suggested that when it comes to doing harm to other people, we’re capable of doing things we can’t imagine if the situation presses us to do it. That’s very discouraging to come to terms with.”

Although Milgram was lambasted for being unethical and for causing his subjects severe stress and permanent psychological damage, Almereyda sees him in a rosier light. “He’s often accused of being a manipulative monster when in fact you see through his work a real drive to understand people,” he said. “I think that drive is ethical. I think it shows more conscience and moral purpose than some of his critics would grant him.”