RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
After World War II, there were all kinds of questions asked about how the Holocaust could have happened. What caused an entire nation of people to adhere to genocidal policies of Adolf Hitler? Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram became obsessed with these questions. And in 1961, he set out to discover the influence of authority on the actions of ordinary people. The infamous study and the man behind it are the subject of new film by Michael Almereyda called "Experimenter." Peter Sarsgaard plays Stanley Milgram. He joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
PETER SARSGAARD: Absolutely.
MARTIN: Can you describe the obedience experiments, as they were known?
SARSGAARD: The test subject answers an ad about an experiment happening at Yale University. They show up at the experiment. The doctor is there. There's another test subject there as well. They're both actors. The doctor hands out two pieces of paper and he says, one says teacher and one says learner. We're going to decide who plays which part. The person picks a piece of paper and it says teacher because both pieces of paper say teacher. And there's a machine set up where the teacher is going to ask a series of questions, and if the person gets it wrong, you give them a shock. It starts off mild and it goes all the way to XXX danger. And, you know, there were cries of agony. The cries of agony would stop. There would be silence. And, now, these people didn't go happily. Most of them were quite upset and asking the doctor to stop. And the doctor would just say the experiment requires that you continue. And Stanley Milgram, who was the real doctor, was on the other side of a two-way mirror. He would come in in the end and let them know that these shocks were not actually real
MARTIN: What was the conclusion? Why did people continue with the experiment when it was clear that they themselves were being traumatized or at least upset? Why did they keep going?
SARSGAARD: Well, many of them abdicated responsibility, and they would say something like, well, you're the doctor. This isn't my responsibility. They would actually say those words and we know that because there's footage where you can see the people. Later in his life, Stanley describes something called the agentic state where we abdicate responsibility by just saying, well, we are the agent of a bigger system. I'm just following orders, you know, it's store policy. The kind of thing we hear all the time.
I was actually telling this story the other day of buying a toy for my daughter at a toy store. And I went out of the store, we opened it up and it was broken. So I went back into the store and the person said, oh, well, you know, you have to have a receipt 'cause I'd wanted to return it. And I said, well (laughter) the purpose of a receipt is to know that I bought it here, but you just sold it to me, so you know I bought it here. And they said, no, no, no, it's store policy. You have to have a receipt. That idea of not going with your own senses, what your eyes witnessed, what your ears witnessed, some big authority in the sky being the thing that rules you is what Stanley was interested in.
MARTIN: Did you know much about Stanley Milgram before you started this project?
SARSGAARD: I knew what he looked like.
SARSGAARD: Yeah, for me, it was really a self-portrait that he drew and it was a self-portrait where he gave himself sunglasses and he had that beard. And so I got interested in the story not just of the experiments but of someone who became famous for something. And it was something that a lot of people had mixed feelings about, especially during that time, the idea of doing this to someone seemed like he was hurting them.
MARTIN: You also play him in a way - I'm having a hard time coming up with a descriptor. It's not...
MARTIN: (Laughter) Phlegmatic - that's it.
SARSGAARD: It's a strange thing to play as an actor, right?
SARSGAARD: I mean, so much of what I was doing in this movie felt like new territory and kind of uncomfortable. And another thing that was difficult was his own personal relationship to the camera. You know, he made a lot of small films where he explained his experiments, and I watched them and he kind of has a forced casual quality. He had a glass of wine that he would pretend to drink in one of them. He would be walking down the street in a corduroy jacket talking to camera. You know, he was trying to make it accessible. It was important to him that these ideas actually get disseminated.
MARTIN: Did you ever imagine yourself in the experiment?
SARSGAARD: You know, I was shocked - I mean, shocked.
SARSGAARD: I was surprised that no one opened the door. I mean, it's hard to imagine what you would do, but I think I would've said, no, let me get shocked (laughter). I know it looks like it's painful, but I should receive it. But it's impossible to know. Everyone you ask says that they would've never gone the whole way, but 65 percent of people did.
MARTIN: Well, it's a fascinating story. The film is called "Experimenter." It stars Peter Sarsgaard as the psychologist Stanley Milgram. Peter, thanks much for talking with us.
SARSGAARD: Absolutely a pleasure, thank you.
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