Way back in the 20th century, a psychologist by the name of Stanley Milgram did an amazing set of experiments. The point was to find out how people would react if asked to inflict suffering on an innocent person.
Milgram created an ingenious set-up involving a punisher, a scientist, and a student. (There’s great video footage here.) The punishers were 40 volunteers who had no idea what the experiment was really about. The scientist told the punisher he was supposed to deliver increasing electric shocks to the student every time the student gave the wrong answer to a test question. A label at the high end said “XXX warning, extremely dangerous!”
Now, pause for a second and guess how many people went along with the scientist and delivered the shocks…..
The answer is all 40. Although they could see the student squirming, complaining (“let me out of here!”), screaming, and growing faint., 26 delivered the maximum voltage despite the warning label. (For a great article about the study, click here.)
I’m sure you’re thinking–the poor students! But never fear, they were really actors. The wires and switches were just fakes and the writhing and screaming wasn’t for real. What was real was the willingness of the volunteers to inflict pain on innocent people.
Milgram thought his experiment shed light on why some Germans went along with torturing and killing Jews and other minority members during the Holocaust; and why soldiers in war will sometimes do cruel things, like torturing enemy soldiers. There are all sorts of situations in which people will go along with unethical conduct rather than rebel against an authority figure.
So here’s my question: do you think you would have inflicted the shocks if you’d been one of the volunteers? If you’re the kind of person who would have (and remember, that’s two-thirds of people!), you might be on the road to doing something that really harms real people. What is there about you and your life right now that tells you that you woud have or wouldn’t have?
Say your answer is: honestly, I don’t know. Then what should you do to prepare so that if you ever find yourself in a real situation like this, with real people (or animals) potentially getting hurt, you’ll be bold enough to stand up to authority and do the right thing?
If you are a parent, not a kid–what are you doing to prepare your kids to challenge authority just when it’s morally important?