We Do What We're Told (Milgram's 37)

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Songfacts®:

  • This song is about the social experiments of Stanley Milgram, a Yale professor who in 1961 had subjects administer electric shocks to a person if they answered a question wrong - at least, that's what they thought. The person being shocked was actually an actor who writhed in pain as the shocks got larger. Milgram wanted to see if the subjects would administer the shocks when the experimenter told them to, even though they were causing apparent pain in the person. Almost all subjects administered the highest level of shock despite the actor pounding the wall in apparent agony.

    "In the main experiment, 63% percent of the participants were prepared to administer enough electricity to injure the person on the other end." Gabriel told Spin. "At first this seems a very negative thing, but I was comforted that some had the strength to rebel."

    "37" came from the number of subjects who administered the maximum shock in another one of the experiments - 37 out of 40.
  • Gabriel used Prophet-5 and Fairlight synthesizers on this track to process his voice and most of the instruments, including the drums that were played by Jerry Marotta (a violin played by L. Shankar is also in the mix). In doing so, he gave the song an eerie, disjointed feel that is in line with the subject matter, simulating what might have been going through the heads of the subjects in Milgram's experiments.
  • Gabriel summarized the results of Milgram's experiments with the phrase, "We do what we're told," which is repeated throughout the song. The subjects did not want to administer the shocks, but did so because the experimenter told them to.
  • Gabriel sung versions of this in concerts long before it was released. They can be found on some bootlegs.
  • When he performed this in concert, Gabriel got the crowd chanting "we do what we're told." Since the song was not yet released and the crowd did not know its meaning, they were ironically aping the results of the experiment by doing just as Gabriel told them.
  • Gabriel asked Milgram for permission to use video of his experiments for stage displays and music videos, but Milgram refused, not wanting his work used for entertainment.
  • This song was featured on the 1986 episode of Miami Vice "Forgive Us Our Debts." It was also used in the 1988 movie The Chocolate War, and in the 2018 season premiere episode of The Americans, "Dead Hand."
  • Milgram's experiments were big news in the '60s, but by the '80s were typically only mentioned in psychology textbooks. Gabriel helped bring them back to the popular consciousness with this song; in 2015, a movie about Milgram called The Experimenter was released starring Peter Sarsgaard.
  • Guitarist David Rhodes told Guitar Player he used his vintage Jazzmaster on the track. "It's heavy wang bar," he explained in a 1987 interview. "It's two guitar tracks, both overdubbed by me, in two different rhythms. The first track is just A dropping to F#, beating the wang bar in one rhythm - straight four - bum, bum, bum, bum - and the second track is half-time. The backing track was done about four or five years ago for the third record [Melt] - the one with 'Biko' on it. It used to have a baby crying on it, and it was a very worrying song. It's a lot more optimistic now, even though it's moody."
  • Gabriel initially wanted Nile Rodgers or Bill Laswell to produce the album with him but opted for Daniel Lanois after working with him on the soundtrack to the movie Birdy. Gabriel praised Lanois' ability to create atmospheric pieces and his knack for creating ideal spaces where live performances can grow. "And he makes sure they don't get lost once they're recorded," the singer told Musician in 1986. The following year, Lanois had another hit album with U2's American breakthrough, The Joshua Tree.

Comments: 16

  • A. Person from GermanyFrom what I understand, the participants giving the 'shocks' were only obedient when they were told (or believed) that what they were doing was 'For the common good', not just at the request of the administrator. The particular experiment that is always referenced was #18 of 18. The other variations of the tests (in which obedience sometimes dropped to 10%) are rarely discussed. See: https://www.simplypsychology.org/milgram.html
  • Andy Smith from LeicsThe track features in the latest episode (28th march 2018) of spy drama "The Americans" season 6 episode 1.
  • Eric from New York, NyActually, there was a variant of the Milgram experiments where the participants would administer the shocks if they were told to _and_ they saw another "participant" administer the shocks dispassionately. Under those circumstances, 37 out of 40 participants complied and administered the final shock. Those are the 37 that Peter was referring to.
  • Jon from Newcastle, United KingdomI saw Peter Gabriel in concert in Southampton England in 1980. He played a version of this song then and explained what it was about. Unfortunately I can't remember the figures he used but my point is that he must have written it in 1980 or before.
  • Christo from Bath, United KingdomRE: asking for permission, Yes the song was RELEASED in '86. but. what year was it written and Peter is known for forward thinking.
  • Sharon from Oakland, CaI was one of Milgram's graduate students in the 70's so I feel compelled to point out numerous errors in both the original description of the experiment and the comments. First, NO SHOCKS WERE EVER ACTUALLY GIVEN! The person allegedly being shocked was an actor with a prepared script.
    Re: Permission. Of course Gabriel did. I was actually in Milgram's office when he or his representative made the call! After the call, Milgram asked me who Peter Gabriel was and I said he was a well-respected rock musician who was very smart. This was either 1979 or 1980.
    Re: Gabriel's recollections. I know he told Blass, Milgram's biographer and administrator of the Milgram website, what it says above. But Gabriel must be confused and gotten his numbers mixed up [memory, as any social psychologist can tell you, is notoriously unreliable]. The percentage who disobeyed in the original experiment was 35%, as noted above. However, there is a variation in which 37 out of 40 [92.5%] obeyed till the very end. They are the ones who did what they were told. The two studies seem to have been conflated.
    As for my credentials to make this claim: My name is Sharon Presley; I'm in Blass's biography. Look me up on the Internet.
  • Mike from Miami, FlWhat version is used on here. It is different from the original. I love it! Any clues?
  • Yary from Warsaw, PolandActually this song is about ageless war between good and evil. The title has double meaning - for one thing, we do what we're told directly, through submission to powers rulling this visible world, powers of evil; for the second, we do what we're "told" indirectly by the higher power of conscience and ispiration, power of good working within us. So "one doubt" is the one principle of good that makes "one" all the people of good will. "One voice" is the power of good "talking" them what to do and also their "voice" for good, their testimony, their choice to do good, their good deeds speaking about victory of good over evil in "one war", vicotory of "one truth" that is their "one dream".
  • Peter from Huddersfield, EnglandSteve, it might have been released in 1986 but, knowing Uncle Pete's recording timeline, was probably written a long time earlier.
  • Peter from Huddersfield, EnglandIt's about all of thos who took part in te xpriment...strangely, when the experiment has been repeated similar stats are recorded.
  • Peg from St. Louis, MoActually Rob is correct, In the 1986 program guide for the SO tour, Gabriel writes that he was actually encouraged that while 63 people out of 100 actually did give the fatal shock, 37 rebelled against the "instructor" and refused to do it. Wikpedia is not a good source as anyone can contribute to it. However Milgram's work clearly states over and over that it was actually 65% that did admisinter the shock, and if you find an actual interview with Peter he says he was writing about the ones who REFUSED.
  • Steve from Malden, MaPeter Gabriel could not have asked Milgram for permission to use video, given that Milgram died in 1984 and the song was released in 1986.
  • Frank from Cambridge, MaI always thought it was 3 out of 37 who refused too. Very important study I think - and perhaps if more people read it, there would be more than three because they'd be prepared. I'm glad I did. It scares me to think I'm not one of the three.
  • Jana from Lee, Nh...And Dominic wins. He's right, it wouldn't make sense if Peter wrote it the way you are infering, Rob.
  • Dominic from London, EnglandRob... Wrong!

    "Peter Gabriel's song "We Do What We're Told (Milgram's 37)", from his 1986 album So, refers to the 37 out of 40 participants who showed complete obedience in one particular experiment."

    (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment)

    Think about it. Why would Gabriel focus on a percentage that didn't keep going when the title of the song is "We Do What We're Told" (a common excuse of the participants).
  • Rob from Heerlen, NetherlandsThe 37 comes from the percentage of people who REFUSED to administer electro-shocks (www.stanleymilgram.com)...Peter deliberately focused on the 37%...
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