United Airlines and the Milgram Experiment


Before beginning this column, I want to remember my friend Julie Hilden, who passed away long before her time on March 17. I got to know Julie in New York City, where we both lived for a while. That’s when she gave me a copy of the manuscript of a novel that she had written and that she later changed into a memoir, The Bad Daughter. Her writing was so riveting and powerful that I could barely put down the book to leave the house. It was while we both lived in New York that Julie met her true love, Stephen. She was thrilled about her new boyfriend, and seeing such a perfect couple together was a joy. A few years later, she gathered together a motley crew of attorneys and academics to help create FindLaw’s Writ, which later became Justia’s Verdict, and she edited all of our columns and wrote her own. Julie is what we all had in common, so we all grieve.

Julie cared deeply about animals. She became vegan while she was my editor, and I like to think that maybe my columns about animal rights helped in some way. One of the last times I saw her, I met her dog, an old boy who would have been put “to sleep” if not for Julie and Stephen. He was so sweet, and I thought at the time that it was extremely generous for Julie and Stephen to have adopted him, given how little time they would have with him.

Julie was extraordinarily generous and Stephen is as well, but maybe becoming close to someone with little time left on this earth is an act of faith and not of generosity. No one who knew and loved Julie can be sorry for that, however little time we got to spend in her company. Every moment with her was a gift, all the more precious for being so fleeting. I miss you, Julie. I hope you are somewhere out there, seeing what a large village you have built, with your writing and editing, with your friendship, and with your kindness.

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Earlier this month, a French bulldog puppy named Kokito apparently suffocated to death in the closed overhead bin of a United Airlines plane. According to the family traveling with their dog, as well as several passengers, Kokito had been secured inside a TSA-approved carrier case when a flight attendant insisted that the carrier be stored in the overhead compartment for the duration of the flight. After the three and half hours it reportedly took to reach New York from Houston, the family found their 10-month-old puppy’s lifeless body inside the carrier case, unresponsive to his human companion’s efforts to resuscitate him.

The family says they told the flight attendant several times that the carrier contained a dog, while the flight attendant claimed—when the dog’s body was exposed—to have had no idea that the bag was something other than an ordinary piece of luggage. The family says it heard the dog barking from the overhead bin for two hours. He then went silent.

After criticizing the evident callousness of the flight attendant, some may be asking why the woman whose dog was imprisoned in a dark and airless luggage bin did not rescue him as soon as possible after the plane had taken off. What was it that stopped her from doing what she undoubtedly wanted to do?

One possibility is that because of turbulence during the flight, cited by the woman’s seven-year-old daughter, they were not allowed to stand up to reach the bin. A second possibility, suggested by another passenger, is that the flight attendant’s order to place the dog into the bin led people to assume that there must have been air in there. But even in the face of turbulence, and with the possibility that the flight attendant might not deny a dog oxygen, I suspect that most people who love a dog and have heard this story would say that “I would have gotten out of my seat and retrieved my puppy in a heartbeat.” It is clear, moreover, that Kokito’s human companion did love her dog, as she tried to resuscitate his lifeless body after the flight and wept when she could not.

In this column, I will suggest that a study from the early 1960s provides insights that might explain otherwise perplexing behavior.

The Milgram Experiment

After the end of World War II, people wondered how anyone could have been brought to participate in the Holocaust. Some speculated that it was perhaps a peculiarly German character trait that made such atrocities possible. During the Nuremberg trials, various Nazi officials attempted unsuccessfully to defend themselves from charges of war crimes by saying that they were just following orders (the “defense of superior orders”) and were accordingly blameless. The mix of excuses and questions about Germans led to the query: Is it uniquely German to follow orders? Are others vulnerable to authority as well?

To investigate such questions, social psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment. Each subject would be told that he and another subject (who was actually a confederate of Milgram’s) would draw lots to determine which one would be the “teacher” and which would be the “learner.” In fact, the subject would always be the teacher. The teacher (subject) and learner would be in adjacent rooms. The teacher’s room contained an electric shock generator. An “experimenter,” dressed in a grey lab coat, would tell the teacher to ask the learner questions. Each time the learner gave an incorrect answer, the experimenter instructed the teacher to shock the learner by pressing a switch on the generator. When the teacher would resist, the experimenter would give a series of orders, intended to urge the teacher to comply. The switches were labeled at increasing voltages with phrases such as “Danger: Severe Shock” and “XXX.” Meanwhile, the learner would audibly plead to be released and beg to be let out of there, as the shock voltages increased.

After varying the conditions in different ways, Milgram found that two thirds of the teacher-subjects in the experiments shocked their learners all the way to the top level (450 volts). This was in spite of the fact that the teacher-subjects were plainly feeling uncomfortable and did not want to be pressing the switch. They manifested their discomfort by doing such things as trembling, sweating, stuttering, laughing nervously, biting their lips, and digging their fingernails into the palms of their hands. Three participants had uncontrollable seizures, and many pleaded to be allowed to stop the experiment. And yet, as far as they knew, they went ahead and applied enough electricity to kill the innocent learner.


Some were surprised by the results of the Milgram experiment. How could Americans, the ones who had fought the Nazis and who prided themselves on living in a “free country,” follow orders that asked them to inflict pain and perhaps death on an innocent neighbor? The experimenter never threatened to do anything to the subject, moreover, so fear of retaliation or violence could not explain the behavior. What did?

It is worth repeating here that subjects felt extraordinarily uncomfortable about following the orders that they received. This discomfort demonstrated that their sense of right and wrong as well as their wish to act morally remained intact the whole time. But this just deepens the mystery. How on earth can some stranger in a lab coat get subjects to do something that they know is profoundly wrong and that they clearly do not want to do?

It is easy to feel superior when hearing about the subjects’ conduct in the Milgram experiment. “Well,” we think, “I would not do that. I am the sort of person who would challenge a malevolent authority figure telling me to do something wrong. Those people in the experiment are different from me.” But are they?

The population included in the study was not entirely representative. All of the subjects were men, for example, and they became part of the experiment by responding to an ad, so they were not randomly selected. Nonetheless, the experiment was repeated eighteen times in the New Haven area, which scientists viewed as reasonably representative of an American town.

Instead of trying to identify ways in which the subjects might have differed from you and me, then, we might want to consider the possibility that we are simply undervaluing the impact of an authority figure on behavior. We could be making what social psychologists call “the fundamental attribution error,” believing that behavior reflects an individual’s character or traits rather than the situation in which the individual finds herself. The situation, however, is far more powerful than we might think.

To give just one example, it turns out that many completely innocent people accused of a serious crime have falsely confessed to that crime when police interrogated them, even though police did not torture the suspects in these cases. We tend to believe that innocent people would not confess in the absence of torture, because we cannot imagine doing so ourselves. But 20-25% of false convictions discovered through DNA analysis turn out to have resulted from false confessions.

In thinking about why some types of police interrogation induce a false confession, it may be worth considering the Milgram experiment again. In the interrogation scenario, police represent the authority figures, and they firmly believe that the suspect is guilty. When they ask their questions and direct the suspect to tell the truth (rather than saying “I am innocent. I don’t know how the blood got there.”), they may therefore be making suspects feel that an authority figure has ordered them to say that they are guilty. They may even come to believe in their own guilt. Among other things, this should make us worry about the “consent” that suspects routinely give police who wish to search a suspect’s vehicle during a highway stop. We tend to do what we are told by an authority figure, regardless of how much we would like to refuse.

Kokito the Dog

What does Milgram and false confessions have to do with the puppy who suffocated on an airplane? The very sad story of Kokito the dog may reflect the phenomenon that Milgram exposed, though it may simultaneously give us a way out. The flight attendant who told Kokito’s human companion that the carrier case had to go in the overhead bin was an authority figure. She was presumably wearing the uniform that flight attendants wear, and she insisted that the bag must go in the compartment.

Like some of the subjects in the Milgram experiment, moreover, Kokito’s human companion tried to resist the order, reportedly telling the flight attendant several times that there was a dog in the bag. But when the authority figure insisted on the order that she had already given, the woman hearing her may have felt that she had no choice but to obey. Even afterwards, when she heard her dog barking in distress for two hours and later being completely silent, she may have followed orders because she did not experience herself as free to do otherwise. Maybe it was the authority figure who kept her from saving her dog.

The outcome in this case was awful. The poor puppy who had earlier been recorded happily running around at the airport, a small but lively package, suffered and died alone and scared, having no understanding of why this was happening to him. And the woman who was traveling with him might be asking herself why she did not ignore the flight attendant’s instructions and release Kokito from the overhead bin, why she allowed him to suffocate to death while she sat, helpless, in her seat.

The Milgram studies help to answer that question. People are extremely responsive to authority figures, even when those figures are issuing outrageous orders. There is reason to doubt that this explains the Nazis, but it may explain lower profile instances of immoral conduct by humans. And perhaps knowing about this human vulnerability to authority figures can assist us in avoiding the pull of following wicked orders.

Knowing that we ordinarily freeze when a flight attendant tells us to do something—and that we do not want to freeze in this way—can, perhaps, liberate us to disobey the immoral order. If you found yourself on a flight with your dog, for example, it is likely that you would now disregard the flight attendant’s order, with the benefit of having thought about the situation ahead of time and heard about its sad ending. It is almost as though your past, out-of-airplane self can now provide the support that your current self needs while in the airplane.

Growing up, my elders told me to eat animals as well as their milk and their eggs. Sometimes it all seemed yucky and weird to me, but authority figures said it was the thing to do, and so I did it until it felt like second nature to me. The authority figures, now implicit, have not stopped saying to eat these things. They have, instead, either lied or spoken from ignorance about the supposed “need” for animal protein, about the supposed “benefits” of eggs and fish, and about the legitimacy of doing violence to feeling beings who are as curious, playful, and aware of their worlds as Kokito the puppy was.

Knowing that I, like everyone else, can be vulnerable to following the orders of an authority figure, it took time for me to opt out of supporting the slaughterhouses that lie hidden in plain sight across the country. But now that I have been vegan for almost twelve years, I know that it is as easy to live vegan as not and that ignoring the authority figures is not only possible but essential. And now, you and the woman whose dog is gone know that too.