The white lab coat, be it in the medical or scientific sector, remains an iconic, recognizable symbol of the 21st century.
As garments go, there I say it is up there alongside other famous coats such as Jose Mourinho’s much-loved overcoat during his first stint at Chelsea FC back in the mid-noughties.
We have written previously about the concept of enclothed recognition and how the white lab coat oozes confidence and authority. So much so in fact that scientific research has proven many times over that wearing a white lab coat from a young age will vastly improve a student’s belief in their STEM abilities, their levels of recognition, and thus, naturally, their science career aspirations.
However, there are two sides to every coin and with great power comes great responsibility. For instance, what happens when faith in the power of that white lab coat is twisted on its head? Enter Stanley Milgram.
The White Lab Coat Speaks Authority
The year is 1963. The Soviets send the first woman to space. Jack Nicklaus wins his first US Masters. Future entertainers Brad Pitt, Whitney Houston, Michael Jordan, and Johnny Depp enter the world presumably kicking and screaming like the rest of us mortals. Martin Luther King has a dream. And John F. Kennedy is assassinated by… well, let’s leave that for another day.
But less known perhaps is an assistant professor of psychology at Yale who publishes his infamous experiment on obedience to authority. Its conclusion, that most ordinary people were willing to administer what they believed to be increased and excessive volts of electricity to innocent strangers, sent shockwaves (I could not help myself) through the world. The smoking gun, all because a man in a white lab coat told them to do so! The findings would make the untenured Milgram a national celebrity.
For instance, frightening excerpts of the experiments in action make for a grim discovery.
“My heart’s starting to bother me now. Let me out of here, please!” the victim would scream.
“He says his heart’s bothering him. He wants to stop,” the test subject would state, turning to the white lab coat wearing scientist.
Instead, they would firmly be reminded by the man in the white lab coat that the experiment needs to continue. If the test subject still showed signs of hesitation, the scientist would again assert his assurance: “While the shocks may be painful, they are not harmful. Continue with the experiment, please.”
And as we now know, in the high majority of cases, the test subject did as instructed, trusting it would seem that the supposed scientist was a man who in control of the situation, no matter how teetering on the edge of disaster it may have seemed to the subject. Remarkably, this continued even after the increasingly powerful shocks had rendered the victim to stop responding to verbal prompts from the test subject and scientist.
Stern Men in White Lab Coats
The idea for the experiment came to Milgram following the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel in 1960. Milgram began researching the post-World War II Nuremberg Trials and noticed a pattern where defense after defense after defense of Nazi war crimes was based on the notion of obedience. They were just following orders from their superiors. This was the root that Milgram sought to pull at - was such a horrific event as the Holocaust committed simply because of the social and behavioral influences of authority figures?
Thus the trigger of his 1961 experiment was built around the character of an “impassive...and somewhat stern” male scientist wearing a white lab coat. This character would instruct volunteers to electrocute their test partners with a lethal electrical charge if they got a question wrong.
So, let’s backtrack a little. The experiment unfolded like so. A volunteer was greeted by a scientist in a white lab coat and was given the role of "teacher" for the experiment. Next, they were introduced to a "learner." The teacher would watch as the learner was strapped into a chair with an electrode attached to their wrist. The teacher was then seated behind a screen in front of a large electroshock machine to read out a list of words as instructed by the man in the white lab coat. It was the learner’s task to reply with pre-learned corresponding comments.
If their response was incorrect, the teacher would apply an electric shock to the learner by pressing one of 30 switches. These were labeled from "slight shock" through to "danger: severe shock." For each incorrect response, the teacher was told to increase the voltage.
Underestimating the Power of White Lab Coat
Interestingly, before the experiment kicked off, Milgram polled psychology students and fellow white lab coat wearers. The majority believed only a minimal number of volunteers, between 1 and 3 percent, would be prepared to inflict the cruel punishment asked of them. Boy, oh boy. Were they wrong? There is a reason this experiment went down in infamy. In fact, more than 80 percent of participants continued after administering the 150-volt shock, and 65 percent went all the way up to 450 volts. The disparity between what scientists thought would happen and what did happen reveal further the magnitude of these results.
If not made clear already, it is important to repeat, the shocks were not real. That said, the participants were told that they were. Grimly, at 150 volts, the participant could hear the learner cry in protest, insist they were about to have a heart attack, and beg, beg, beg for mercy and to stop the study. After 330 volts, the learner made no noise at all, suggesting they were no longer capable of responding. Yet, through it, all, the man in the white lab coat kept telling the participant to ignore the protests or the unsettling silence and administer an increasingly large shock for each wrong answer or non-answer.
So, what does this all mean? Quite simple really. Ordinary people are willing to administer a lot of pain to innocent strangers if an authority figure instructs them to do so. And again, it hammers home the connection we have between a white lab coat and competence. While the learner was only feigning pain, 65 percent of volunteers effectively killed their student because they trusted the instructions they were getting from the man in the white lab coat.
Today, the Milgram experiments are considered among the most famous and most controversial of all time. They are also often used in expert testimony in cases where perceived obedience leads to crime. For instance, in 2004, psychologist Philip Zimbardo referenced Milgram’s work in the trial of an Abu Ghraib prison guard.
All of this paints a fascinating picture of our perception of the stereotypical scientist. Not only do we feel great about ourselves when decked out in white lab coat, but a lot of us would kill another human being at their request!