“Experimenter” is a Surreal Study with Really Unsettling Results

Molly Laich
Posted on October 30, 2015, 9:58 am
11 mins

Stanley Milgram’s work on obedience and authority in the 1960s yielded some of the most important discoveries in social psychology. You’re probably already familiar with the basic setup: Volunteers are asked to administer an increasingly painful (potentially lethal) shock to a man in an adjacent room every time that he gives the wrong answer to a series of questions. The volunteers are told that the hypothesis being tested is that negative reinforcement aids in memory and learning. In reality, the learner and experimenter are confederates, no actual shocks are given, and the real test is how far people will go to appease authority even at the obvious expense of others. Milgram wanted to know how far people would go before conscience overrode what they had been told to do.

Psychologists of the time expected that few people would go all the way up to the maximum (and lethal) 450 volts, but in fact the opposite was true; over half of the volunteers proceeded to maximum shock value. Just twenty years after the holocaust, when war criminals were still being tried and convicted, Milgram’s findings about the flimsy nature of morality were equal parts relevant and disturbing.

Such is the subject of writer and director Michael Almereyda’s bizarre film, Experimenter. Peter Sarsgaard stars as Stanley Milgram alongside Winona Rider as his patient and understanding wife. In the opening scenes, we’re taken through the experiment in real time. Milgram and his team filmed many trials of the study for a documentary, and the film recreates the experiment faithfully. Still, the dramatic reenactment shows something the original footage can’t. The audience sees how tiresome the experiment becomes to those running it (more than 700 times to get a healthy sample size) including the stress of watching the volunteers make agonizing moral decisions. From a meta perspective, Milgram and his men start to look like the real sadists, as they give their subjects a series of painful psychic shocks. Almereyda’s film concentrates on the amoral majority, but someone could easily do one on the effects of the study on the studiers.

I first learned about Milgram in my social psychology course as an undergrad, where we watched clips of his work. More than those who fell in line, I was fascinated by the outliers who stood up against the authority figure. I remember one man in particular who became angry and defiant. “It’s imperative to the study that you continue,” the experimenter says. “I don’t give a damn about that,” he says, and then the basic equivalent of “You’re not the boss of me.”

Jim Gaffigan plays the man pretending to receive the shocks.

Jim Gaffigan plays the man pretending to receive the shocks.

In class, our professor reminded us that one of the benefits of studying social psychology was that if we ever found ourselves in a similar moral position, perhaps we could override our natural human inclination and do the right thing—because it’s not enough to simply want to do the right thing. The subjects who went all the way with the shocks reported in exit interviews that they wanted to stop, but were concerned about the integrity of the experiment and didn’t want to let the experimenter down. These people were not psychopaths, but ordinary citizens who probably think of themselves as “nice,” and like most, have a natural aversion to conflict. And yet few would argue that the actions of those who were willing to face conflict and stand up to the scientists were the most merciful and just. One must know how to evaluate what the just thing is under circumstances that are constantly changing.

By the traditional standards of “plot,” “character” and “pacing,” Experimenter is barely a movie. Almereyda shows us multiple people taking part in the study, by actors such as John Leguizamo and Taryn Manning (Pensatucky from “Orange Is the New Black”). In between the action, Sarsgaard as Milgram speaks directly to the camera in a measured, at times monotonous voice, either to narrate action or simply to muse on the implications of his findings. Sometimes, there’s an inexplicable, live elephant following behind him.

Obvious set pieces make for a way Meta filmgoing experience.

Obvious set pieces make for a meta filmgoing experience.

As a biopic, the source material is a tad light. Milgram designed many groundbreaking social experiments during his time at Yale, where he was met with praise, skepticism and criticism of his ethics. He meets his wife on an elevator and they build a happy, uneventful family. Questions about whether or not the wife has herself become a controlled subject of Milgram’s are raised and then quickly abandoned. Some women are just kind, supportive people who are content to stand by their partner (the arc of Rider’s character seems to say).

Otherwise, the film follows a rambling, stream of consciousness logic, where provocative ideas are discussed with interest and intelligence. In Sarsgaard’s performance, we see the irony of a man with few social graces who’s built an entire career around studying social behavior.

Obedience and Control studies conducted at Yale University in 1962.

Obedience and Control studies conducted at Yale University in 1962.

I wonder if there isn’t another way entirely of interpreting Milgram’s results about obedience and authority. So many experiments from the mid twentieth century fall apart when you consider how the controlled, clinical setting factors into the subject’s actions. Take rats who lever press to the point of death for drugs like heroin and cocaine. If you enrich the rat’s environment with things that rats like, such as mazes, spinning wheels and other rats, then the rat’s inclination to press for drugs decreases significantly. Could it be that the surreality that the test creates has a more powerful effect on the volunteer than just her need for obedience?

If you’ve ever tried to consciously lucid dream, you’ll see what I mean. In order to ‘wake up’ in the dream, you have to first recognize that you’re dreaming. A lucid dreamer does this by questioning details that seem out of the ordinary. They have to get in the habit of constantly asking, “Am I dreaming?” Once in a dream I found myself losing a game of poker to a man with five queens in his hand. For a moment I thought to myself, “That can’t be right. Perhaps this is a dream…” but it’s remarkable how quickly the brain can reorganize the entire world to account for a single anomaly. In the dream I told myself, “The rules of this card game must be different from what I’m used to,” and poof, my shot at waking up in the dream was lost.

The subjects must have had a profound conviction in their belief that members of the scientific community know what they are doing and, furthermore, have the moral integrity not to inflict pain on another person, even as the test asks them to perform tasks that directly contradict that premise. To ask the subject to question this reality is the same as asking them to ‘wake up’ inside of a dream, a skill found in roughly 20 percent of people. And here’s the really weird part: Those who kept giving the shocks based on what may have been an unconscious belief that no man in a neutral gray lab coat would ever actually expect them to inflict pain were ultimately correct, since no actual shocks were given. But I digress.

In the end, Almereyda’s slight but intellectually entertaining film invites us to consider whether the lesson’s learned by Milgram’s work are worth the pain experienced by the volunteers. Of course there’s no easy answer, but for me personally, I think we should all be so lucky to have the chance to confront our true selves. And if those people should ever be put in a similarly compromised position, perhaps they’ll have the wisdom and courage to wake up and make a different choice.

Molly Laich
Molly Laich is a writer and media fan. You can find her at mollylaich.com and doghatesfilm.com and on twitter @MollyL