Because I was told to…

Would you do it? Would you push the button to give someone a shock just because a [supposed] doctor told you it would do no harm even though you felt it was wrong?

The TV show, Curiosity asked that same question, and then went on to illustrate their results. The originator of the question, though, was Stanley Milgram of the Stanley Milgram experiment back in the 1960’s. The Milgram experiment asks the question, “How willing are you to obey an authority figure who has instructed you to perform acts that conflict with your personal conscience?”

The answer may surprise you. I know it did me when I saw the outcome on Curiosity.

Here’s the set up: You and the “student” (usually someone in on the experiment) are instructed by the “doctor” (who is also in on things) as to how the process works. The “student” is placed in a sealed room with electrodes attached to them, while you (the teacher) are to give them word pairs to memorize via voice communications only. If, when you ask them to recite the pairings back to you, they get any of the pairings wrong, you give the “student” shocks of increasing voltage. Also, you’ve been informed (usually by the “student” when you met them) that the student has a slight heart condition, but the “doctor” assures everyone that this shouldn’t matter.

Here’s the reality: everyone except those acting as “teachers” is in on the “experiment”. No one is actually connected to any electrodes, so no one is being zapped; no one has a heart condition; and no one is actually learning any word pairings.

So, would you be willing to zap someone, increasing the voltage each time, if they didn’t get what you were “teaching” them? Most people when asked say they wouldn’t do it, and they give all kinds of reasons—it’s inhumane, it’s wrong, pain doesn’t help you learn. Even I shook my head once the host of the TV show explained what was going on, and said, “No way would I participate in something like that!” Yet, of the 10 people pegged as teachers (the only people who really had no clue that it was a set up and that no one was actually being zapped or having to learn word pairings), only 1 person refused to participate and walked out after hearing what it was they were expected to do. Of the remaining 9, they all balked once the voltage got to about the mid-point. However, once the “doctor” assured them that the “student” was fine (despite the yelps and screams of pain they heard coming from the “student”, pleas to quit, and reminders of the heart issues), all 9 continued through to the end of the experiment.

The producers of Curiosity even changed up the experiment a bit and added 2 “teachers”, one who was in on the experiment and one who wasn’t. With the added consensus of the second “teacher” backing them, almost all of the “teachers” (7 out of 10) refused to continue the experiment beyond the mid-point despite the “doctor’s” insistence that the “student” would be fine, that no harm would occur, and that the experiment needed to be completed for the results to be of value.

So, what does that mean? It means that when confronted with authority, most of us are willing to concede responsibility to that authority. As long as the authority figure seems knowledgeable and non-threatening (to us), most of us are willing to follow whatever orders we’re given despite what our conscience is telling us. In fact, we’re so willing to offload our responsibility that most of us don’t even feel guilty or very upset by continuing the experiment.

However, when someone else shows that they also question the edicts of the authority figure, we’re more likely to listen to ourselves and our conscience, and take on the responsibility of our actions—we may continue the actions, but we feel guilty and upset, or we may start questioning openly that authoritarian’s edicts.

It’s interesting that for most of us, balking against authority takes acceptance by at least one other person. I’m not necessarily an anarchist, but I would certainly hope that I’m not such a sheep that I would willingly zap someone just because someone (whom I don’t know from Adam) says it’s okay. That’s what I hope; what choice I’d actually make…I don’t know.

How ‘bout you? Would you zap someone? Would you continue to zap someone just because you were told it was okay?


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