Thursday, 8 December 2011

The Evil in all of us

If you'd been born a German in the early 1900s, would you have been better or worst than the thousands who tortured? Would you have been brave enough to hide a Jewish family? Or would you have been one of those who gave them away for a gold coin?

Would you have given some bread to the starving child sitting on the side of the road? Or would you have joined in stoning his father?

We all like to think that we would have been one of those brave souls who stood up to the authorities and did the right thing. But unfortunately most of us wouldn't have.

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In the 1960s a man called Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment where he asked his subjects (the teachers) to administer an electric shock to a "learner" every time he got an answer wrong. What the subjects didn't know is that the learner was an actor and that he was not actually receiving electric shocks.

The teacher sat in a room with the experimenter (the authority), and the learner sat in a different room. They had audio contact. Every time the learner gave the wrong answer, the teacher was to give an electric shock, going up in increments of 15 volts.

As the experiment progressed, the learner's cries got louder and more desperate. At some point he starts pleading with them to stop and says that he has a heart condition. He then starts banging on the wall and then goes silent.

How many do you think administered the full 450 volts?

Take a guess?



Would you have gone all the way?

Well 65% of us would've.
That's right 65% administered the full dose!
Even after the learner was pleading, screaming.
Even after he went silent.

The experiment was about how we obey authority. All of the subjects at some point voiced concern and said that they were not comfortable continuing. But when the experiementer - dressed in his white labcoat - told them to continue, they did.

It is easy to sit here today and blame the many in history who went along with horrific acts. And I am not saying that their behaviour was acceptable because they were following orders. But perhaps, when caught between power and fear, we would've done the same.

May we be spared ever having to pick a side.
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*I have not included a video of the Milgram experiment here as it can be a bit distressing. But if you are interested, there are numerous videos of the original as well as more recent versions of the experiment on YouTube.

Linking up with Where's my Glow for Flog Yo Blog Friday.