Trust in bureaucracy I – the Milgram experiments

I have recently been reading Gina Perry’s book Behind the Shock Machine which analyses, criticises and re-assesses the “obedience” experiments of psychologist Stanley Milgram performed in the early 1960s. For the uninitiated there is a brief description of the experiments on Dr Perry’s website. You can find a video of the experiments here.

The experiments have often been cited as evidence for a constitutional human bias towards compliance in the face of authority. From that interpretation has grown a doctrine that the atrocities of war and of despotism are enabled by the common man’s (sic) unresistsing obedience to even a nominal superior, and further that inherent cruelty is eager to express itself under the pretext of an order.

Perry mounts a detailed challenge to the simplicity of that view. In particular, she reveals how Milgram piloted his experiments and fine tuned them so that they would produce the most signal obedient behaviour. The experiments took place within the context of academic research. The experimenter did everything to hold himself out as the representative of an overwhelmingly persuasive body of scientific knowledge. At every stage the experimenter reassured the subject and urged them to proceed. Given this real pressure applied to the experimental subjects, even a 65% compliance rate was hardly dramatic. Most interestingly, the actual reaction of the subjects to their experience was complex and ambiguous. It was far from the conventional view of the cathartic release of supressed violence facilitated by a directive from a figure with a superficial authority. Erich Fromm made some similar points about the experiments in his 1973 book The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness.

What interests me about the whole affair is its relevance to an issue which I have raised before on this blog: trust in bureaucracy. Max Weber was one of the first sociologists to describe how modern societies and organisations rely on a bureaucracy, an administrative policy-making group, to maintain the operation of complex dynamic systems. Studies of engineering and science as bureaucratic professions include Diane Vaughan’s The Challenger Launch Decision.

The majority of Milgram’s subjects certainly trusted the bureaucracy represented by the experimenter, even in the face of their own fears that they were doing harm. This is a stark contrast to some failures of such trust that I have blogged about here. By their mistrust, the cyclist on the railway crossing and the parents who rejected the MMR vaccination placed themselves and others in genuine peril. These were people who had, as far as I have been able to discover, no compelling evidence that the engineers who designed the railway crossing or the scientists who had tested the MMR vaccine might act against their best interests.

So we have a paradox. The majority of Milgram’s subjects ignored their own compelling fears and trusted authority. The cyclist and the parents recklessly ignored or actively mistrusted authority without a well developed alternative world view. Whatever our discomfort with Milgram’s demonstrations of obedience we feel no happier with the cyclist’s and parents’ disobedience. Prof Jerry M Burger partially repeated Milgram’s experiments in 2007. He is quoted by Perry as saying:

It’s not as clear cut as it seems from the outside. When you’re in that situation, wondering, should I continue or should I not, there are reasons to do both. What you do have is an expert in the room who knows all about this study and presumably has been through this many times before with many participants, and he’s telling you, there’s nothing wrong. The reasonable, rational thing to do is to listen to the guy who’s the expert when you’re not sure what to do.

Organisations depend on a workforce aligned around trust in that organisation’s policy and decision making machinery. Even in the least hierarchical of organisations, not everybody gets involved in every decision. Whether it’s the decision of a co-worker with an exotic expertise or the policy of a superior in the hierarchy, compliance and process discipline will succeed or fail on the basis of trust.

The “trust” that Milgram’s subjects showed towards the experimenter was manufactured and Perry discusses how close the experiment ran to acceptable ethical standards.

Organisations cannot rely on such manufactured “trust”. Breakdown of trust among employees is a major enterprise risk for most organisations. The trust of customers is essential to reputation. A key question in all decision making is whether the outcome will foster trust or destroy it.


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