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Obedience to Authority and Coercive Restraint Therapies

November 12, 2010

In 1961, social psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a series of what later became very famous experiments on obedience to authority. Participants were given the task of “teaching” individuals who were designated as “learners” but really were aligned with the researchers as confederates. The task of the teacher was to teach the learner a group of word pairs. The teacher then read the first word of each pair back to the learner and the learner’s task would be to give the second in the pair. Each time the learner made a mistake, the task of the teacher was to administer an electric shock to the learner and the shocks progressively increased in intensity, the more items the learner missed. Of course, the experiment was all a setup and no actual electric shocks were being administered, but the participants did not know this and believed they were actually shocking the “learner”. A popular misconception about this experiment is that the subjects were students, but this was not the case. Participants were people from the community from all walks of life.

The teacher/participant was instructed to do this by the researcher, who was an authority figure, wearing a white laboratory coat. Milgram wanted to know how far people would go in obeying the authority figure. What percentage of people would go all the way to the highest level of danger in administering the electric shocks? How many people would continue obeying the instructions of the authority figure to continue the experiment, even when the learner began complaining of chest pains and then became unresponsive? The results, although well known today, surprised many people. A poll taken by Milgram of ordinary people and of his professional colleagues predicted that only 3% would go all the way to the end. However they were very mistaken. A whopping 65% of subjects went all the way to the highest level, believing they were administering 450 volts of electricity and continuing, upon the instruction of the authority figure, even over the cries and subsequent failure to respond of the learners. Even though all of the participants stopped to question the authority, a large percentage continued and only one participant actually refused to go beyond the 300 volt level.

What have we learned from this experiment? I’m tend to doubt that we have learned much at all, given the propensity of many parents to believe authoritarian therapists who have convinced parents to administer what the average onlooker would consider highly abusive treatments to their children in the name of holding therapy, therapeutic holds, attachment therapy and whatever other names people have chosen to call it. Parents are pre-warned by the authoritarian therapist that yes, this “therapy” does look like abuse but that ultimately they need to trust these therapists as “experts” and “authorities” in attachment disorders.

Many parents are convinced by these authorities that administering this abuse in the name of “therapy” is the only way they can prevent their children from growing up to be violent, dangerous criminals and sociopaths when in fact, there is no good evidence that this is the case. One popular book by Nancy Thomas provides a list of famous criminals and sociopaths claiming they all had attachment disorders when the only diagnosis in the DSM is Reactive Attachment Disorder and this says nothing about such behavior problems, although Nancy now has a blog where she further equates RAD with all kinds of symptoms that are not part of the diagnosis. A reliable diagnosis would be impossible to perform on the people she listed. Nevertheless, parents are frightened into agreeing to all kinds of so-called ‘therapies” that most people would consider highly abusive. Anyone who challenges the validity of these therapies is told that they are not experts and ignorant and if they make their challenges public, can be subjected to all out smear campaigns.

I would call the current promotion of attachment therapies, coercive restraint therapies or whatever one wishes to call them a real life Milgram experiment times 10. I say “times 10”  because this display of authoritarianism is being directed, not at neutral participants in an experiment, but at individuals who are desperate to find help for themselves, their children and their families.

Just like Milgram’s subjects, many parents do initially challenge a therapist’s recommendations and may make efforts to check out their therapist. Ultimately, however, many are just referred to others deemed “experts” by the AT community who simply shout down and attack critics and even adult survivors of these brutal so-called therapies and unfortunately, like Milgram’s subjects, end up carrying out potentially harmful interventions. A key difference is that such parents carry these instructions out, not on strangers in a laboratory, but on their own children. They believe that just because someone has a degree such as an MD, PhD, PsyD and a hospital affiliation, that they must know what they’re talking about. Unfortunately, this is not correct. There are all too many mental health professionals of all stripes who rather than going by evidence of what the research says works, were trained in an authoritarian manner. Unfortunately this is true, even for some MD psychiatrists, since one four-year study by anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann described by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson in their excellent book, Mistakes were Made But Not By Me, showed that psychiatrists, although of course they are trained in how to administer medication and treatment, some have little if any training in the scientific method or critical thinking and instead follow the lead of their supervisors and are expected to simply absorb their lessons rather than actually read literature or think critically about the way in which they are being trained. And lest one be tempted to engage in name calling of anyone who dares to criticize psychiatry as a Scientologist, Dr. Aronson and Dr. Tavris are psychologists, not Scientologists. Of course, there are psychiatrists who do abide by the scientific method and think critically but the lesson here is to recognize that just because someone is an MD, psychiatrist, that does not necessarily mean that their offerings will be scientific and some have even endorsed attachment therapies and others who practice interventions that employ what the evidence shows are dangerous forms of restraint.

A common tactic of AT proponents is to attempt to reframe critical discussion as “polemics” and dismiss critics as engaging in “polemics” and instead urge the parents to talk to the so-called real experts. Translation: Don’t think critically, just dismiss criticism as “polemics” and put your trust and obedience in authorities who designate one another as “experts”. In essence, what we have here is a real-life Milgram experiment.

While there is nothing wrong with consulting an expert, mental health consumers need to learn to ask that expert the hard questions. When consulting such experts, consumers, rather than blindly following advice that every instinct within them tells them is abusive, they need to question that expert and ask what the basis for their recommendation is. While a person’s instincts can be wrong and some scientific findings can be counter-intuitive, what we’re talking about here are not scientific findings, but rather, authoritarian assertions. If the expert can only provide testimonials and anecdotes, that is the time to walk out the door of that person’s office and never look back. Ditto, if all the expert can provide is authoritarian assertions accompanied by attacks on critics that consist of nothing more than personal smears and arguments from authority (i.e. I am the expert, they are not). Otherwise, the only difference between such parents and the Milgram participants is that this is real life and the “learners” are children who will be feeling the pain, long after the treatment is doled out, and that is if they are lucky enough to survive it.

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3 Comments
  1. You forgot to mention that Nancy Thomas inexplicably includes Edgar Allen Poe in her list of “attachmernt disordered individuals that did not get help in time.” Which always makes me want to comment: “So if I don’t do this my kid will turn out to be a dark but brilliant writer? Sounds like a good deal.”

  2. Yes, I never could figure out why she put Poe on that list, unless it was because he was said to have had bipolar disorder as well as substance abuse problems and she somehow decided that was an attachment disorder. He certainly wasn’t a criminal like the others, though.

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