Author Topic: DM21 Obedience  (Read 9999 times)

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Offline Daen

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DM21 Obedience
« on: February 07, 2022, 12:42:41 AM »
Daen's Musings #21- Obedience

I want to describe the Milgram experiment to you. If you've never heard of it, I envy you. This should be a valuable experience for you either way, but if this is news to you, it'll be even more so. It certainly was for me.

In 1963, a professor named Stanley Milgram put out an ad for average, everyday people, to participate in a study about memory retention and learning. He offered to pay them for their time, and got a bunch of volunteers. They were brought into the office, two at a time, and given the instructions for the experiment. They were paid in advance- remember that, because it's important later on.

One volunteer was randomly chosen as the Learner, and the other was the Teacher. The Teacher was given a list of simple word association questions to ask the Learner, one after another. The Teacher would read off two words, such as Strong Arm, and then two more, and two more, etc, for the Learner to remember. Then the Teacher would see how much the Learner remembered by saying the first word, and then multiple choice versions, and asking the Learner to say which one was correct. To prevent cheating, the Learner was escorted into the next room over, so he couldn't see the paper (all the participants were male at the beginning; they branched out to women a little later).

Sounds straightforward, right? Unfortunately, it gets a little dark here. The Teacher presents the word pair options one by one, until the Learner gets one wrong. Then the Teacher is supposed to press a button... and administer a shock to the Learner as punishment for his mistake. Yeah, that's right. The Learner isn't verbally reprimanded, or fined, or any other standard punishment we accept for mild transgressions; he's given an electric shock.

When I was growing up overseas, I was stung by a scorpion, right in the chest. I was just a kid at the time, and it hurt a lot. Fortunately it wasn't one of the deadly species that were out there, and I was in no real danger. Still, the usual treatment for a scorpion sting is to zap the area with a cattle prod. Apparently the electrical charge neutralizes the poison. I'd experienced shocks before, and I was more afraid of the prod than I'd been of the sting itself. Reading about the Milgram experiment brought that fear back to me, in full force.

Even more intensely, the Teacher doesn't just have one button that administered a simple 15 volt shock. He has thirty, ranging all the way up to 450 volts. The Teacher isn't allowed to just hit the same one each time, either. He has to hit them in order, from a mild zap, to severe shock. He can't see the Learner, but he can hear him through the wall. He can hear the pain he inflicts on the Learner. He even knows what it feels like, because before the test begins, he was given a sample shock at the lowest setting just to understand what it would be like.

Sounds pretty simple, if a little grim, so far. As you've probably guessed by now though, it's a lot more complicated than it seems. The experiment isn't about memory, or word association at all! It doesn't have 2 volunteers. It wasn't the Learner being tested; he didn't even get any real shocks. He was just pretending to be in pain, reading off a script. It was the Teacher who was being tested. The 'random' choice at the beginning wasn't random at all. It just looked that way.

The true aim of the Milgram experiment was to test peoples' obedience to authority. He wanted to see how far people would go in inflicting pain on others, just because they were politely asked to do so. The people in his experiment didn't have a gun to their heads, or any threat to their families. They'd already been paid for their participation. The only thing keeping them there in that room, administering shock after shock after shock (or so they thought) to some poor guy on the other side of the wall, was a man in a lab coat, telling them that the experiment required it.

Milgram's reasons for running the experiment were personal, from what I've read. His parents were Jewish, and left Germany before WW2. He grew up hearing stories about the holocaust, and the millions of Jews slaughtered, systematically and brutally, over in Europe. When the war ended, and the architects of the holocaust were being hunted down and tried for their crimes, he wondered about everyone else who'd been at those concentration camps. Adolf Eichmann didn't kill all those people alone, after all. There were 900,000 SS, and several million in the regular army, as well as another 900,000 manual laborers; all so-called 'normal' people helping him exterminate the Jews in Europe.

Milgram didn't have a small sample size, either. Seven hundred and eighty people volunteered for his study, and were asked to administer shocks to advance the experiment.

Before I tell you the results of his experiment, I should tell you some of the predictions of it. Milgram's colleagues heard about his experiment, and claimed that the vast majority of his subjects wouldn't go through with it. They might hit one or two buttons, at least until the guy in the next room started showing signs of pain and fear. Maybe one person in a hundred would hit all thirty buttons, advancing all the way up to 450 volts. Such a person was the exception, not the rule. People don't want to inflict pain on other people, after all.

It's a natural assumption, really. We all want to assume the best about ourselves, and rationalize away any shortcomings we might have. Psychologists like Milgram's contemporaries would easily think that the Eichmanns of the world are an aberration, not representative of humanity in general.

By comparison, I have a very dire view of humanity. I predicted, when first reading about the experiment, that over 90 percent of people would push all thirty buttons, even to the point where the victim on the other side of the wall had fallen silent and might have died.

I don't know why I'm different- why I have the opposite view of my species than most people. I've talked about it in previous Musings, but it's still a mystery.

Take a moment to think about the experiment for yourself, if you've never heard of it before this. How many people would go through with all the shocks? Would you?

I'd like to think that I wouldn't have. I've gone over it in my head, as if I was there at Yale, participating. I told myself that I'd say something like, 'I don't care what he says,' to the Learner. 'The moment you ask me to stop, I'll stop, and that's that.'

I'd like to think I would have even seen through the test itself, but I can't know for sure. None of us can know for sure, until we're actually in the situation ourselves.

Millions of people participated in the holocaust, from guarding prisoners, to escorting them to the death camps, to stripping them naked and gassing them. This is verified fact, despite what some people say. I wasn't alive during that time, but genocides and mass imprisonment are still happening today! You might think that some people in Nazi Germany were innocent of the extermination. They certainly claimed to be ignorant of their leaders' crimes.

To me, there's no difference. Whether it was the man operating the gas chamber, or the guard at Auschwitz's gates, or the gravedigger arranging holes for bodies to be dumped in... or Eichmann himself- they're all equally responsible. Morally speaking, there's no distinction between them.

Actually for me it goes even further. It wasn't just the people in the area responsible, it was all of Germany. All the Axis powers, actually. The Nazis robbed the people they killed of everything, and the German citizens benefited from that, but even the people who didn't benefit were still responsible. If you live in a country that commits atrocities, but don't try to stop them; if you're not willing to risk your very life to stop them... then you are also committing atrocities.

frustrated chuckle

I've gotten a bit off-topic, as usual. Back to the experiment, and the results. You've heard the psychology experts' predictions at the time: that maybe one in a hundred would go all the way. You've heard mine: that nearly everyone would.

In truth, about 65 percent of people in Milgram's experiment pushed all thirty buttons. That's spread out across gender, race, and profession. Nearly two thirds of all people in there were willing to inflict possibly lethal damage on someone they'd literally just met. Simply because they were asked to, by someone they'd also just met (Milgram was observing from somewhere else). Someone who was wearing a lab coat and looking professional. That's it. Nowhere in the entire experiment was any force used. This... was all voluntary, from start to finish.

What does this say about us as a species? That was the question Milgram was trying to answer, at least. I can think of several possible reactions to this news.

The most common reaction would be bog-standard denial. Milgram was lying, some people might say. He fabricated his results, and influenced the experiment to get the outcome that he wanted. It's the Stanford Prison Experiment all over again. He was just pissed that his people were 'allegedly' exterminated, and wanted to play the victim. He cheated, and lied, and used his position of authority to sensationalize the story. We can't take anything he said seriously.

Blaming the victim is practically an American pastime by now. From Monica Lewinsky, to Stormy Daniels, to Christine Blasey Ford, to so, so many others. In every case, when they made their accusations public, there was a hurricane of pushback against them, belittling and shaming them, trying to assassinate their character and make it seem like they couldn't be believed.

Side note here: it is true that some people who claim sexual harassment are lying. The vast majority however, like 99 percent, are telling the truth. Just because we might not like what they're saying, doesn't mean it's right to assume they're lying.

Another reaction to the Milgram results might be nihilism. If so many people could potentially kill someone they just met, simply by being asked to, what hope is there for humanity? They're evil people. We're evil people! We all deserve to die, right? The world would be better off without us. We're no better than animals. In fact, we're even worse than animals. At least the critters out in the wild establish an instinctual balance with their environment. We just destroy it, everywhere we go!

My naturally pessimistic nature has me strongly tempted to join this camp. I'm a dark-minded person, and I've had to fight against that trend before. It would be so easy to just assume that everyone is a monster, and can never be changed. That way we can always expect the worst, and rarely, if ever, be surprised.

Here's a third option, though. Instead of making assumptions about the experimenter, or the test subjects, or humanity in general, we can actively try to fix things. We can take Milgram's results for what they were intended to be. A spotlight on the human trend towards obedience... and a warning of how that obedience can be misused.

So we're naturally inclined to obey. That's not necessarily a bad thing, you know. If the policies we come up with actually benefit everyone, or root out corruption in our leaders, or fix the world in which we're living, mass obedience could be useful. If a clean-shaven authority figure in a lab coat can get us to torture each other, couldn't that same authority figure get us to help each other?

As with every problem that needs fixing, we need to recognize that it's a problem first. The problems I'm pointing to are many: way too many to get into here. I've touched on a few of them in previous Musings, but I'll keep on describing them as we go. The first and biggest problem we have though, is us. Milgram's results speak for themselves: we obey easily. We need to recognize that fact if we're ever going to change it.
« Last Edit: July 22, 2022, 05:34:21 AM by Daen »