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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Experimenter

I've been fascinated by the Milgram Experiment ever since seeing The Tenth Level, a tv-movie, in the 1970s. Milgram, who was something of a rock star in the psychological field, conducted experiments which showed, with little doubt, that people are pre-disposed to be obedient to authority, even when they are hurting others. He did this to try to explain the horrors of the world, which at that time was most recently Nazism.

In this docu-drama, directed by Michael Almereyda, Peters Sarsgaard plays Stanley Milgram, who is a teacher at Yale. In the early '60s, he conducted an experiment in which the subject was cast in the role of "teacher," while a confederate played the "learner." Whenever the learner got a question wrong, the teacher would give him an electric shock. Even after the learner cried out in pain and said he wanted to quit, the teacher would continue. Sixty-five percent went the whole way, and usually hated themselves afterwards.

Milgram was surprised to find these results, as he was told that very few people would actually continue under such conditions. But this may explain why soldiers and others can commit atrocities and then say they were "just following orders."

The film is interesting but is more informational than entertainment. Sarsgaard breaks the fourth wall often, and there are some interesting touches such as green screens with black and white backgrounds and a symbolic elephant (as the "elephant in the room") throughout.

Much of the film is Milgram defending himself from critics, who claimed he was a sadist for doing the experiments. The Tenth Level, which starred William Shatner as a version of Milgram, took that tack. Milgram rejected these claims. Amusingly, an actor plays William Shatner here and tries to mimic that actor's unique cadence.

I was interested to learn that Milgram was the one who came up with the "six degrees of separation" theory, as well as other studies in conformity, such as when a person looks up into the sky many people will stop and do the same.

Of course, most of us will watch this movie and think that we wouldn't go through with it, and would stop and exercise our free will. But we don't know for sure.

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