Lights, camera – Obedience!

Alfred Hitchcock seems an unlikely inspiration for an instructional film about a psychological experiment. But Stanley Milgram paid close attention to Hitchcock’s horror movies for his film ‘Obedience’ in the same way Milgram studied Candid Camera for tips on deception.

Chances are if you’ve heard about Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiment, you’ve also seen all or part of his film Obedience. You might have seen it screened during a psychology class, or on TV as part of a documentary or on YouTube where it’s had over 2 million views.

The film was shot over three days in May 1962.  The man behind the camera was Ed English who spent the whole time behind a one way mirror in the lab.  Milgram, English says, was worried that his subjects might notice the lights and guess they were being filmed.

Obedience film offered evidence

Cameraman Ed English.

Milgram wanted a filmed record of his experiments because it was a more powerful way of showing what was involved than any written or verbal explanation.

He had already noticed that describing what happened in the experiment was not the same as seeing it. Milgram told one interviewer that no matter how many times he tried to explain the Obedience experiment to colleagues, most of them looked “puzzled.”

But it would be three years between the shooting and editing. And in those three years Milgram became mired in controversy, was passed over for a tenured job at Harvard and his obedience research was de-funded.

By the time editing began on the original footage, Milgram wanted much more than a simple visual document of his studies.  He wanted ammunition in the war that had erupted about the validity of his findings and the ethics of conducting such experiments on unsuspecting volunteers.

Stanley Milgram’s film more art than science

So does it succeed?  The film certainly tries to convince us as viewers that this is ethical and serious science that says something profound about human nature. But if you ignore Milgram’s voice over and watch the actors in the film, you get a whole other story.


Photo credit: I, Confess by Matthew Conroy CC-BY-SA-2.0


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