Friday evening, I did something I rarely do: I watched one of those pseudo-news shows, the kind that generally focus on soft news that everybody but me seems to be interested in. Generally it is some kind of pop culture junk like Brittany’s latest antic (WHO is Brittany anyway and why does everyone but me know her by first name?). But a Friday night spent under a cozy quilt, nursing a slight malaise left from New Year’s, left me sprawled in a recliner with a TV remote and nothing worth watching. I happened to catch Primetime, an ABC show that left me deeply disturbed.
The show was about the Milgram experiment conducted in the early 60s and a 2006 similar replication of the experiment. In 1961, just a few months after the trial of Adolf Eichmann began, the Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram began an experiment to test to what degree people would obey authority even when it was in direct conflict with their personal beliefs.
The subjects of the experiment were people like you and me. They were asked to participate in experiment about whether pain assisted the learning process. The second individual, complicit in the experiment, was set up in another room as the “student.” The “teacher”, the actual subject of the experiment, was placed in front of a panel of switches labeled with increasing voltage. Whenever the “student” missed a question, the teacher was directed to flip the next highest voltage switch, giving the student an apparent electric shock. The teacher could not see the student, but could hear the student’s responses.
There was no actual voltage applied to the student, but the student gave increasingly painful cries, and as the experiment proceeded, the students began to plea that the experiment end. In an amazing number of cases, the teacher, despite the cries and entreaties of the student, continued to give increasing shocks. The experiment found:
Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.
The experiment was not repeated for over 40 years. It wasn’t repeated because of the psychological trauma that the experiment caused to the “teachers.” Primetime said they wanted to know if people today would continue to obey an authority figure even if they thought it meant hurting someone. The test was modified somewhat, in an attempt to avoid the psychological harm the first experiment caused to the teachers, so rather than going to 450 volts, the teachers were asked to go only to 150 volts. 80 percent or so of the original subjects would go to the end if they got to the 150 volt mark.
In the recent experiment, each student told the researcher, in the presence of the teacher, that he or she suffered from a heart problem. The researcher assured the student, again in the presence of the teacher, that the experiment was harmless. The experimenter told both that the test could be discontinued at any time, that they would get paid whether the test was complete or not. Then during the experiment, if the teacher asked to discontinue, the experimenter simply said that the test needed to continue. The experimenter made no threats, no gestures of threat, or any particular emotion at all. He simply said the test needed to continue.
Despite believing the student suffered a heart problem, despite the cries of pain, despite the pleas to cease, despite any physical or indeed emotional pressure to continue, the majority of subjects continued to administer the shocks.
We have apparently learned nothing about the evil that obedience to authority can be. It is not a horrible shock to me, given the evidence of torture at the hands of our soldiers, but it is nonetheless a disturbing result. No one could predict who would be willing to fulfill the experiment and who would not. People of both genders, all races, social status etc., were willing to continue. They did find that women were actually more likely to proceed than men.
The conclusion reached in this experiment was that the people who refused to continue with the apparently painful experiment had one significant difference from those who would continue. The people who refused felt responsible for their actions.
The people who would continue, declined any responsibility for their actions. The people who would continue told the researchers that the pain was not their fault, that they were simply a conduit at the switches, and that it was the experimenters who shouldered the blame. In one of the videotaped sessions, the teacher, who has just heard the student complain of his chest hurting (remember the student has previously mentioned a pre-existing heart condition) and beg for the experiment to stop, is heard asking the experimenter, “who is to blame here if something goes wrong?” When the experimenter says that he (the experimenter) is to blame, the teacher says “that’s all I needed to know” and continues the experiment to the end.
The people who refused to continue said they felt responsible for the pain they were causing. They accepted responsibility for flipping those switches. One subject continued despite some cries of pain, but flatly refused once the student asked that the experiment stop. That subject said once the experiment was no longer consensual, he had to stop. This subject was described as a bit of a non-conformist. How sad that it takes a non conformist to rebel against hurting another, but it supports my belief that some healthy disrespect for authority is a good thing.
It is all about personal responsibility. What kind of person can flip a switch that might kill someone and yet take no responsibility for his or her actions? What kind of person can listen to someone scream as they torture them, and yet blame someone else? The experimenter in this test had absolutely no control over the life of the teacher. There were no threats made against the teacher, and in fact the teacher was told that they would be paid for their time whether or not the experiment was completed.
I spent some time living in Europe and remember discussing torture and the Nazis with some German friends. The grandparents of one of my German friends lived near Dachau during World War II. She said her grandparents always claimed they had no idea what was going on at the concentration camp not many miles away. I always doubted the truth of that statement. Now I wonder if it matters at all. If people are actually willing to hurt someone else just because they’re told to do so, it isn’t much worse to simply ignore it.