The Agentic State Is Stable

Hi everybody,

Welcome back. I am still feeling the tail-end of whatever the hell it was that sidelined me for a while now. During one of my numerous sleepless nights of late, I watched a film called “Experimenter” that was just added to Netflix.


As is the case on this blog, I’m not about to review the movie, speak about its artistic strengths and/or weaknesses. For me, this movie is more a reminder. A starting point for these next few words I’m about to write, and in that – being a trigger for some thought – the film is a great success.

It’s no spoiler that the film revolves around social experiments conducted by social psychologist Stanley Milgram, and in the center of it all, the one started in Yale university, in which he observed people’s willingness to obey questionable orders.

The experiment was fairly simple:

  • A subject in the role of “The teacher” would sit in front of a switchboard which supposedly delivers electric shocks to another individual in the role of “The student“. The student sat in another room, not visible to the teacher.
  • The teacher is directed to deliver an increasingly higher shock to the student for every wrong answer for a long series of questions.
  • The maximum shock would be fatal.
  • The teacher would be told that the experiment is about the student’s ability to learn under the “threat” of the shock, and before the experiment started, the teacher was requested to receive the lowest shock he’d be asked to deliver to the student.
  • The student was in fact a part of the experiment team and received no shock at all.
  • With every wrong answer, a recording of the student expressing unease, pain and ultimately demands to stop would be played to the teacher.

Suffice to say that over 60% of the subjects delivered the shocks without fail up until the maximum strength. Some expressed distress, discomfort and some sympathy to the student. Others protested, but ultimately all of these 60%+ went all the way.

I find it disturbing, especially since this experiment was replicated in decades to come in different places on the globe with even bigger percentages of compliance (e.g. ~80% in France).

Stanley Milgram called this the agentic state, which means handing off responsibility for one’s actions and thus painting one’s self as an agent of someone else.

Milgram then became a target for much scorn.

Subjects and others proclaimed:

“I feel manipulated, deceived.”
“You lied to your subjects”
“You weren’t honest
You told them to do it”

among other accusations.

To which I have to say:

  1. What better conditions could exist for such an experiment? It’s actually the most realistic set, as we are all manipulated, deceived, lied to and most of all…
  2. Led to believe we don’t have a choice. Which is the whole point of the experiment. All the accusations are either “YOU/HE/THEY did something” or the like-minded “something happened TO US“.Where is the “I” and the “WE” in this discussion? There’s always a choice. There’s always consequence, but there’s always choice. And WE make it, one way or the other.

In this experiment, what was the consequence of saying “no”? How does it compare with the consequence (even if it’s only in the subject’s head) of compliance?

I fear that this agentic state is stable, that is, have been instilled in us for as long as a century (at the very least). This is not only reminiscent of the holocaust, though that played a major role in Milgram’s motivation. It’s in so many things we do, or not do and have been doing for a very long time now.

There are many ways to change that, but none of which could be imposed on the individual. Guess what, it’s a matter of choice. Ask any practicing Buddhist.

What are your thoughts? Have you seen the movie? are you familiar with Milgram’s experiments?

Until next time…