Welcome back to the Exalted Salvation Horror Show. Last week, I presented two horrifying revelations of the human psyche that led to unfortunate and notorious incidents, namely the Kitty Genovese murder and the Challenger explosion. For today, I have one blood-curdling story to present, so curl up in your blankets now and prepare for the scare of your lives.
Imagine you are in an experiment, sitting behind a machine. The machine has knobs on it corresponding to voltages, with words such as “mild shock”, “moderate shock”, “extreme shock” and “danger” at the bottom. The experimenter tells you that there is a middle-aged man sitting in the next room wired up to this machine, and you can hear the man speaking through the PA system. The experiment is meant to test the effect of punishment on memory. So basically the man will be asked to memorise certain stuff, and everytime he forgets, you turn the knob to deliver an electric shock to him. You must deliver stronger shocks to him each time. Halfway through the experiment, the man protests that he has a heart condition and cannot take this anymore, but the experimenter tells you to continue anyway, and that all responsibility goes to him. Will you go on to the Danger condition?
Two-thirds of participants in the experiment went all the way to administer the maximum voltage of 450 volts to the man. This is a terrifying example of obedience to authority, and guess what historical event I’m going to quote regarding this phenomenon? That’s right, the Hitler and Nazi regime.
Many of the Nazi supporters did cruel and atrocious actions, and when questioned, most said they were following instructions from the higher-ups, who assured them that all responsibility would go to them. The experimenter knows best about safety precautions, just as in the case of the Nazis. The higher-ups knew what they were doing and all the soldiers had to do was obey.
In variations of the experiment, it was found that women were likelier to obey orders to go all the way than men. When the experimenter was seen as not an expert, and found to be just an ordinary man, people were less likely to obey. And naturally, when people were seen to be disobeying, or there were two experimenters who gave contradictory commands, people were less likely to obey too. People were also less likely to obey if the middle-aged man was in close range, and could be seen or even touched.
This experiment was performed by Milgram in 1965 and 1974. Some might argue that people in the past were more obedient. Today, we are a lot more savvy about deception studies and we are braver and more assertive when it comes to standing up for ourselves, right? Surely results would be a lot more optimistic if they were performed in the modern day. However, it seems a replication of Milgram’s test in the 21st century does not show much difference. This psychological phenomenon has not died within us.
What would you do if you were planted in such a situation?