Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A shocking experience

You've probably heard of the famous Stanley Milgram "shock experiment," in which participants were instructed to deliver a series of increasingly painful electrical shocks to an unseen (but clearly heard) subject, with voltages increasing to an incredible 450 volts. As the voltage increased, the subject (who was actually an actor and not really receiving the shocks) banged on the wall, confessed he had a heart condition, and eventually went silent.

As for the results, you're probably aware of some, but I'd like to highlight some of the lesser-known details.

  • 65% of the 40 participants complied to the very end, although every last one of them paused and questioned the experiment.
  • Only one participant refused before the 300 volt level.
  • None of the 35% who stopped before the end insisted that the experiment be cancelled, nor left to check on the health of the victim without getting explicit permission.

65% is a pretty surprising number, but subsequent replications seem to bear it out. Milgram polled 14 Yale psychology major seniors as to what they believed the percentage would be; they guessed on average 1.2%. Given that people tend to believe that they are more ethically responsible than their peers, we can guess that fewer than 1.2% of such students believed that they themselves would complete the gruesome task.

So where's the disconnect? One hypothesis was that the actor wasn't sufficiently convincing, and that the participants knew it was fake. Despite the extreme duress witnessed in the subjects, one research group decided to test out the hypothesis -- by using real shocks on a real puppy.

The results? All 13 female participants delivered the final zap (although apparently, many were very distraught and some cried openly), as did 7 of the 13 men. Shocking, indeed.

But I'm curious: although the results have been consistent across replications over time, must it always be this way? To that end, I'd like to point out one of the more inspiring outcomes of the study:

84 percent of former participants surveyed later said they were "glad" or "very glad" to have participated, 15 percent chose neutral responses (92% of all former participants responding). Many later wrote expressing thanks. Milgram repeatedly received offers of assistance and requests to join his staff from former participants.
Okay, so first of all, we can probably assume that the original 40 participants would behave differently if "tested" again. We might even suspect that people who are merely familiar with the outcome of the experiment would have a lower compliance rate (indeed, researchers replicating the experiment are always very careful to select subjects who aren't aware of the original study).

But how well does this generalize? Does knowledge of the dangers revealed by this experiment give people moral fortitude in other stressful situations? It seems to have in at least one case:

Six years later (at the height of the Vietnam War), one of the participants in the experiment sent correspondence to Milgram, explaining why he was glad to have participated despite the stress:

"While I was a subject in 1964, though I believed that I was hurting someone, I was totally unaware of why I was doing so. Few people ever realize when they are acting according to their own beliefs and when they are meekly submitting to authority… To permit myself to be drafted with the understanding that I am submitting to authority's demand to do something very wrong would make me frightened of myself… I am fully prepared to go to jail if I am not granted Conscientious Objector status. Indeed, it is the only course I could take to be faithful to what I believe. My only hope is that members of my board act equally according to their conscience…"

What about people who haven't taken part in (or even heard of) this experiment? What other sorts of experiences equip one with the presence of mind to act in accordance with their beliefs under duress?

It's not always possible (or even ethical) to insert people into intense situations that can so deeply ingrain the courage alluded to above; a gentler, more gradual approach would be preferable.

We've already seen that only a small percentage of people -- so-called psychopaths -- are (apparently) completely lacking in empathy. If "the rest of us" could just figure out how to ensure that our existing decency cannot be so easily subverted, we just may be onto something.

There will always be Hitlers, but perhaps there won't always be conscripts ripe for the picking. Stay tuned for an exploration of how such a fantasy may one day come to pass...

(Note: all the above data and quotes are from the Wikipedia article on the Milgram experiment)

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