John Bargh is a social psychologist and Yale professor renowned for his work on automaticity and unconscious processing in social situations. The News asked Bargh to reflect on the legacies of the Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment at Yale and in the field of social psychology.

It was the philosopher Hannah Arendt who ‘shocked the world’, even before Milgram, in her New Yorker coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trial in Israel the same year (1961). Arendt coined the term ‘banality of evil’ in her analysis of how the Final Solution was actually carried out, with many people involved in the logistics of moving so many people to their deaths, in the middle of a world war, and how Eichmann the train-scheduler was, like so many others, ‘just doing his job’; a rather stupid and self-absorbed functionary who was hardly the autonomous evil mastermind he was painted to be. But Arendt’s thesis was highly controversial and she stood alone until Stanley Milgram showed experimentally that yes, ‘it could happen here’ and that Americans (and presumably, everyone else) were also capable of such destructive obedience if put into the same situation.

Milgram’s experiments also opened our eyes to the power of the situation over individual values and personality, the theme that Phil Zimbardo pushed even further with his Stanford Prison Experiment ten years later. These two research programs, along with Bibb Latane’s and John Darley’s ‘good Samaritan” studies of bystander (non)intervention, are seen today as the founding studies of experimental social psychology. Indeed, the powerful message they send about situational forces pushing and guiding our behavior often trumps our good intentions and what we want to believe we would do in such adverse circumstances. For in both cases, the findings were unexpected in the extreme.

No one expected (except perhaps Milgram) the observed high degree of obedience to an authority figure telling participants to shock at apparently fatal levels an older man who had stopped responding many shocks ago. The panel of experts Milgram consulted before the experiments began predicted that fewer than one percent of participants might do such a thing.

In Zimbardo’s case, Zimbardo himself (as warden of the simulated prison) called off the study one week into the planned two weeks duration because his girlfriend pointed out to him how his own wardenly behavior was becoming sadistic and not at all like the guy she thought she knew.

So in the case of the Stanford Prison study, even the professor who designed the study did not expect the situational and role (of warden or guard or prisoner) context’s powerful effects to transform an individual into someone else entirely.

Where are we today, 50 years after Milgram? In one sense, as shown by Abu Ghraib as well as the more recent Balkan, Rwandan and Sudanese genocides, the Milgram-Zimbardo findings have not gained acceptance at the levels of government and justice — the levels of actual powerholders — where they are most relevant and where change is needed the most. Professor Zimbardo’s testimony about the power of the situation to produce destructive obedience, given at one of the Abu Ghraib trials within the US military court system, was derided the court as “excusiology”.

It would seem that from our vantage point 50 years in the future that while Arendt, Milgram, and Zimbardo changed the field of social psychology, the field of social psychology has been much less successful in changing public consciousness and awareness. It would seem that we as individuals believe in individual free will too strongly for that to happen — but it is striking to me how this strong belief suddenly evaporates when we ourselves are held accountable for doing something harmful just because someone powerful told us to do it.

John Bargh is a professor in the psychology department.