Monday, 18 May 2009

A shocking truth

I expect most people have heard of the notorious experiment* in which volunteers were asked to give massive electric shocks to an innocent and protesting man. Two thirds of them did.

The experiment was repeated recently, but the volunteers weren't kinder, they were actually more ruthless. This time 75 per cent gave the maximum shock - three times.

What this extraordinary experiment shows is that when it comes to the crunch, people are more likely to be obedient and conformist than to challenge authority and help someone in distress.

However guilty and nasty they felt about being cruel, they were scared to simply refuse and walk out. They somehow justified the instructions, repressed their finer feelings and did what they were told.

Even knowing how mindlessly callous some people can be, I still find this level of submission incredible. Are so many people capable of ignoring heart-wrenching, insistent cries of pain and misery? It seems they are.

I'm totally sure I would be one of the refuseniks. Apart from my ingrained rebelliousness and suspicion of experts and authority figures, there's no way I could willingly inflict pain on an innocent person for no good reason. And a so-called scientific experiment with no clear purpose is not a good reason. I would be out of the door like a shot.

We like to pride ourselves on being questioning and independent, looking carefully at a situation and doing the right thing. But it seems that in practice this can prove to be a fragile self-delusion.

Our cherished principles can all too easily be undermined by our human weakness for less moral considerations - wanting to please, not wanting to be awkward, or just following procedures. We're not always as strong-minded as we like to think.

* the Milgram Experiment at Yale University in 1961


  1. An interesting experiment tho' don't you think?! With a scary outcome, however I don't think the perpetrators were aware they were part of an experiment?

  2. I think we know until we're actually confronted with such a dilemma Nick, there are a few times in my life where I didn't act when I saw outright distress for fear of getting into trouble with authorities/messy involvement with people and bodily fluids (don't ask!)/not knowing what to do, etc.
    I sure would like to think I would stop, I mean these people weren't threatened in any way for NOT inflicting pain, right?

  3. Suburbia - Oh, they were aware it was an experiment (supposedly on memory and learning). They were led to believe they were giving real electric shocks (although they weren't), and the victim was clearly showing serious signs of distress (and was said to have a heart condition).

    www - They weren't actually threatened, though a bit of pressure was put on them to continue. Jenny questions my certainty that I would walk out! But I've never in my life deliberately inflicted pain on anyone.

  4. Nick this experiment was first done in the 60's with Yale Uni students and is known as the Milgram Experiment. One interpretation is that participants suffer learned helplessness, where they feel powerless to control the outcome, and so abdicate their personal responsibility. That explains complicity in such things as wartime atrocities. On a more personal level, would you become involved if someone was being threatened in the street? One Dutch tourist did in Melbourne last year and almost paid with his life. Hard call, I'm not sure whether I'd get involved - depends on the severity of the abuse. I would however, have walked out of any experiment doing this sort of thing. It's barbaric.

  5. Exhibit A: The Holocaust, in which people "just followed orders."

    Need I say more?

    This was conformist, spineless, immoral behavior taken to its logical extreme.

    I am a rebel, too, but have always known that I was in the minority.

  6. Baino - Learned helplessness is an interesting explanation, though the fact remains the volunteer was always free to leave. And a street incident is very different because there may be people with weapons and others ready to pile in.

  7. Heart - The Holocaust is a good example of where this sort of weak-mindedness leads. Lots of people call themselves rebels, but just how resolute are they when their beliefs are seriously challenged?