What a Decades-Old Experiment Can Teach Us About Derek Chauvin and George Floyd

It has been 60 years since Yale social psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted his famous experiment on obedience to authority, but the trial of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on multiple criminal charges, including third-degree murder, for the death of George Floyd has given us new reason to look back at Milgram’s experiment

Chauvin’s trial will determine what, if any, legal responsibility he bears for the death last May 25 of Floyd. Milgram’s experiment leads us to a more difficult question: How was a single police officer, Derek Chauvin, able to kneel on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes without being effectively challenged by the other police officers on the scene? 

Milgram began his experiment in July 1961, the same month that the trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann, a high-ranking Nazi official who played a key role in transporting Jews to German extermination camps, started. Milgram’s experiment was designed to show how willing people were to obey authority even when what was asked of them was cruel. Eichmann’s trial dovetailed with Milgram’s concerns. The colorless Eichmann’s actions were the classic example of what the historian Hannah Arendt in her account of the trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem, called the “banality of evil,” and in his 1974 book, Obedience to Authority, Milgram paid tribute to Arendt, noting that the concept of the banality of evil “comes closer to the truth than one might dare imagine.”

Milgram’s experiment consisted of taking volunteers and dividing them into the roles of teacher and learner. The division was planned so that the volunteer always ended up as teacher, while the learner was a paid participant. The volunteer was instructed by the experimenter to give electric shocks to the learner (a paid participant) for wrong answers. How far would the teacher go in obeying the experimenter was the issue Milgram focused on. The answer was very far—a conclusion consistent with that of subsequent Milgram-like studies.

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