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A Shocking Revelation About Human Nature

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The results were horrifying. Nobody suspected it could be that bad, not even close.

In 1961 a controversial experiment was carried out that made some chilling discoveries about human nature. Psychologist Stanley Milgram wanted to know how it was possible that so many people co-operated to commit the atrocities of the Second World War. They couldn’t all have been sociopaths, yet thousands and thousands of people did unspeakable things to innocent people, and millions more looked the other way.

Is it really that hard to stand up to authority?

Milgram devised an experiment that went like this:

Forty subjects were recruited to participate in an experiment “on learning and memory”, having answered a newspaper ad offering a modest payment for an hour of their time. Each of the subjects were informed that they would be compensated fully as long as they showed up, regardless of their performance in the experiment.

Upon arrival, each subject met with two people. The first was a man in a white labcoat purported to be the scientist conducting the experiment. The second was another person who was supposed to be a fellow subject, but whom was actually an actor. The two subjects drew slips of paper to see who would be the “teacher” and who would be the “learner” in the experiment.

It was rigged: both slips said “teacher,” so the real subject was always given the role of teacher, though he was under the impression that he’d had an equal chance of being the learner. The actor always played the learner.

The experimenter then announced that the learning was to be reinforced by electric shocks, which would be administered by the teacher on the learner whenever the learner gave an incorrect response to a simple memory test. Each teacher was given a 45-volt sample shock to get an idea of the shocks they would be giving.

The teacher was intentionally allowed to witness the learner being strapped to a chair, with electrodes fixed to him, before being ushered into the adjacent room, where he would be stationed in front of an electric shock generator. The experimenter sat behind the teacher, holding a clipboard.

On the generator, there was a switch for each level of voltage, labeled in 15-volt increments. Whenever the learner chose the wrong answer, the teacher was to inform them of the incorrect response via intercom, and hit the first switch, administering a mild electric shock. For each wrong answer, the teacher was to advance to the next switch, giving a stronger shock than the previous time.

The switches were labeled “moderate” for the 75- to 120-volt switches, and “strong” for 135-180 volts. At 375 to 420 volts, the label was “Danger: Severe shock,” and the two highest-level switches were labeled, ominously, “XXX.”

The shock generator did not actually deliver shocks. Instead, it triggered pre-recorded vocal sounds of someone getting shocked in the next room. At the higher voltage levels, the sounds became screams, banging on the wall, complaints of heart pain and pleas to stop. At the final three levels, there was silence from the room. Silence was to be regarded as an incorrect answer, deserving of another shock.

If the teacher appealed to the experimenter that the experiment should stop, the experimenter was to say, “Please continue.” on the second protest, it would be, “The experiment requires that you continue,” then “It is absolutely essential that you continue,” and finally, “You have no other choice, you must go on.”

If the teacher were to protest a fifth time, the experiment was halted. Otherwise the experiment only halted after the teacher gave three consecutive shocks at the maximum voltage.

The Results

Milgram and his colleagues expected that only a small percentage of the participants (2 or 3 per cent) would continue long enough to administer the final, deadly shocks. Nobody expected many participants to continue after hearing screams of pain from their fellow test subject.

They were stunned. Sixty-five percent of the teachers administered all of the shocks, including the final 450-volt punishment. Only one participant refused to continue before reaching 300 Volts, though he still continued to administer shocks after the learner had said he was having heart trouble. The rest continued on to the end despite hearing the learner’s repeated pleas to be let go.

Remember, the subjects believed that they’d had a 50/50 chance of being the one in the other room.

Nearly all of the participants did become anxious and visibly uncomfortable as the experiment went on, some of them severely. But they still followed the experimenter’s urgings to continue.

Milgram summarized his findings:

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.

The experiment has been repeated many times, by Milgram and others, with similar results. In subsequent trials, it was discovered that the teacher’s distance from the authority figure and the victim affected the level of obedience, and that the personal appearance of the experimenter did too. Evidently the labcoat is a very powerful tool.

Another remarkable observation was that even while they continued to issue shocks, most of the subjects exhibited signs of sympathy for the learner. They encouraged him to think about the questions very carefully, apparently hoping that they didn’t have to give the shock. This suggests that many of the teachers didn’t feel they were in a position to decide whether the learner would receive a shock or not, even though they were the ones at the switch and they were there voluntarily.

What do you make of the results of the Milgram Experiment? What does it say about human beings?

Reflecting Milgram’s initial reasons for conducting the experiment, there are some not-so-subtle implications here regarding the motivations of the perpetrators of the Holocaust. If a stern man in a labcoat can get the majority of people to electrocute another person just by telling them to, what does that mean for foot soldiers in totalitarian regimes?

It’s interesting to consider how easily destructive behavior can arise, given all the forces that are constantly acting on any given human mind, That is, if you can avoid getting self-righteous while you’re thinking about it, and that’s not easy. Perhaps we’re not so behaviorally stable as we often think.

And that’s to say nothing of offenses of a much smaller magnitude than genocide. We are impressively quick to judge others on moral grounds, whether they’re on the most wanted list in the paper, they’ve been unfaithful to their partner, or they’re simply driving a Cadillac Escalade. The severity and relevance of our judgments vary, of course, but the mechanism is the same: we’re almost always confident we can fairly assess the moral worth (and the deserved fate) of people we don’t know, who are under circumstances we are not ourselves under, based on one instance of their behavior.

I do it all the time, and even though I’m now aware of how asinine it is, I find it extremely difficult to stop. I have to constantly remind myself that whenever I have thoughts about what other people are, or what they deserve, I am seldom even close to being qualified to make that assessment.

Do you think the subjects in the experiment were particularly cowardly or selfish people? Are you confident you would have behaved differently?

I find myself thinking yes, of course. But I wasn’t there.


Photo by Joshua Davis Photography

Pauline October 27, 2010 at 5:21 am

Amazing, its the first time that I hear of this experiment and it sounds very interesting. Thank you for sharing!

So, for the hundredth time it shows that people are a flock of sheep, quite literally. But why do the pedestals we build for others like us act upon us as a shepherd-dog? Guess this is the price for having a complex brain.

David October 27, 2010 at 7:01 am

The interesting thing is that clearly we’re compassionate, sympathetic beings too. But we’re highly conditioned to submit to authority, and it can supersede our morals.

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) October 27, 2010 at 6:35 am

Milgrams’ study and the others are so disheartening for me.

What does it say about certain human beings? That they are conditioned to be dependent on the opinions of others because their relationship with Self, does not reflect one shown in your pic.

It’s shown in daily activities; stereotypes adopted, jokes shared without reflecting on what they actually say about social values, gossip… etc

Just finished an online group assignment made up of other educators (some PhD qualified); my main feedback in the peer review was, “lack of understanding that the “expert” is not necessarily right”~ the whole assignment was about leaving behind the “mug and jug” (expert and anonymous learner) paradigm!

academic dependence drives me crazy >_<

David October 27, 2010 at 7:02 am

I’m not sure what you’re getting at. Do you think the results are misleading, and don’t represent human tendencies at large?

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) October 27, 2010 at 3:54 pm

Do I think that most of us on the globe would respond similarly~ No.

Milgram found 65% (n= 40) responded in this way, his initial sample was white North American men with a senior education and a military background. This and his later studies continued to have non-representative samples of the population, in; number gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status or controlling for other difference variables (e.g., aggressiveness, past history of violence, quality of life, personality, enduring beliefs… etc).

Simply changing the environment of one of his studies saw a drop to 47%.

Milgram’s study, and replications, do reflect a tendency within societies with patriarchal value systems, IMO.

Michael October 27, 2010 at 7:31 pm

Yet it seems that a grand part of humanity would respond in a similar way, which even if not representative of the whole, is still a large chunk.

From what I’ve experienced as I analyse people, it seems we are naturally sympathetic and wish to avoid the sort of situations, but lack the strength in will to confront authority even when it violates our moral standards.

Every single one of us would likely say they’d behave differently, but would we really?

You must also take into account that in some other similar experiments, subjects were explicitly reassured that the shocks were not deadly, that they wouldn’t harm the patient. They tell you it’s “all right” to do it and you will believe the man in white – after all, he seems like a knowledgeable person, right? He wouldn’t lie to me, right?

Luckily, nowadays people are learning to nurture their willpower and I doubt this sort of situation will ever re-manifest itself in the future. Well, so I hope, anyway.

David October 27, 2010 at 10:07 pm

65% may have been the peak proportion of people who responded that way, but that number was twenty times what was expected by Milgram’s colleagues and graduate students.

Even 47% of any demographic is insane. 10% is insane. Remember, it was 65% of the sample who did not refuse to continue at any point. 97.5% of the first sample inflicted shocks after it was clear the learner was suffering and wanted the experiment to stop.

Authority is a function of the environment. Uniforms, proximity and some other factors were shown to make a difference. If I recall correctly, the sex of the subject and the site of the experiment did not make a significant difference. In any case, the results are startling. Except to Peebles and his mom!

Frank Smith April 12, 2011 at 4:26 am

This is a good point, Maybe different societies would have different outcomes.

As the USA has sank into torture as a standard means of incarceration.

IE: Bradley Manning is evidently being held in some form of torture, Link Here:


I wonder if this experiment would be different in other countries, say Canada or the Netherlands.
Here in the UK I would expect the outcome to be even higher!

Any one know if this has been done elsewhere?

Lisis October 27, 2010 at 7:16 am

It’s interesting that, while the Nazis were on trial for crimes against humanity, back on this side of the world our “morally superior” brilliant minds were purposely infecting Guatemalans with Syphilis. I guess THEIR breach of ethics is always worse than OURS.

As to your questions, I don’t think these subjects were particularly cowardly or selfish. I think they were perfectly ordinary… like most people, subject to mob mentality (and lacking in empathy)… easily swayed in any direction because they don’t know what they stand for. Sadly, this is how MOST people are… hence, the current bullying epidemic.

I would definitely, without a doubt, have behaved differently.

David October 27, 2010 at 9:03 pm

That’s the crux of all the criticisms I make about morality here on Raptitude. We’re all guilty of what could be identified by others as moral transgressions, sometimes atrocious ones. It’s not that morality is worthless , it’s that we’re so naive about it — it seems so cut and dried when we’re the one judging, yet it can be so murky and difficult when we’re the one with the dilemma.

I don’t think they were lacking in empathy necessarily though. Many of them really suffered through the experiment, and it was widely criticized for being unfair to the subjects. They did seem to lack courage though. But that seems to be normal.

Tracie October 27, 2010 at 7:36 am

There are connections here to a lot of questions.

Why do people stay in relationships with abusive partners?
Why do people obey laws even when they believe the law is completely wrong?
Why do people spend so much time and money on weight loss/self help/earn money quick ads they see on television?

There are more, but I think you get the idea. I don’t know exactly where it came from, but people are often very willing to give authority to someone else. It’s a large part of how societies manage to hold together. The rule of law is based on it working, but there are times when it can have terrible consequences, either personally, or more widely. I’ve felt this before. Once I’ve decided that someone has more authority than me, it’s a very heavy weight to overcome.

David October 27, 2010 at 9:08 pm

Authority is an interesting phenomenon to observe. We can feel it when certain people enter the room, but what is it? It definitely has a deep, primal effect on our thinking and our actions. It is mysteriously heavy, no doubt about it.

Ellen November 2, 2010 at 12:14 am

I’ve been thinking about this since I saw a video on Youtube about how children learn:
Basically, when shown how to do a task with a few steps which were clearly redundant, chimpanzees skipped the redundant steps and children didn’t. The theory is that children, and people, expect to be taught things by other people, whereas chimps don’t teach each other things.

I think if you take this to the next logical step, people expect other people to have an insight into a task that they don’t, and while they might be doing things which appear to be redundant, the “teacher” has the better understanding, and they would know that there is, in fact, a reason for doing things a certain way, even if the student in this situation can’t see it.

I guess that’s where authority comes into it. By someone establishing themselves as an authority, there’s an assumption that they a) are there to teach us and b) have some kind of knowledge of the situation that we don’t, and so we aren’t able to appropriate judge our actions, so we follow their instructions, as we assume they will have weighed the pros & cons for us.

Now, with the Milgram experiment, there is a theory that what he was measuring wasn’t actually submission to authority, but rather how being in a situation where the participant doesn’t think it is real affects the participants actions. The theory goes something like, yes it was the 60s, but people still had ethics and didn’t really believe that researchers would kill people in an experiment, and so the people didn’t really think that what they were doing was real. It’s probably not possible to know which one it was, or if it was both, nor does that diminish the importance of the experiment, but I think that it’s certainly worth considering when discussing the implications of the experiment

G November 2, 2010 at 6:34 am

Now that smacks of plausibility. A test-subject could be in a state of ambivalence as to whether the situation’s real, like when the victim of a hidden-camera prank finds himself in an absurd situation, actually glancing around for the hidden cameras, but unable to take the risk that he will offend by calling bullshit. Believing that there may be something at stake if the situation is genuine, he is gradually drawn in. This would probably alter his resonse?

I strongly suspect that hidden camera shows use the disorienting effects of absurd situations to make the dupe do things they normally wouldn’t – I’ve seen situations where, for example, people will lie to police to cover up the crimes of a stranger: my guess is that this is not just the sort of things they’re disposed to do; they’ve done it because the criminal is, say, a celebrity or sporting superstar, and maybe the crime itself is somehow absurd. The situation is dreamlike, inviting one to play along with the dream-logic presented.

mike October 28, 2010 at 8:51 pm

..”Once I’ve decided that someone has more authority than me, it’s a very heavy weight to overcome”….this has me thinking Tracie of how we “Decide” who has more authority … sometimes when in a gathering of 5 or 6 individuals we tend to mentally “feel” our way through the room as if sensing for the “leader” of the group before settling down into “our role”…..generally among men an ‘Alpha’ male exists and will make himself known immediately to establish his “authority”…if perchance 2 ‘Alpha’ males are present together in ‘unmarked’ territory then it becomes something of a spitting contest for ‘the title’ which can at times be humorous when observed..An individuals tone of voice as well as its amplitude can have immediate effects when jockeying for a position of authority ..Its interesting how for most people an staunch or loud sounding voice is often percieved internally as a threat and almost instantaneously instills fear or uneasiness and in turn some degree of submission…..

Tracie November 1, 2010 at 4:16 pm

It does also sometimes have as much to do with social or professional position as any tone of voice or posture. I’ve had experience with a doctor who was, it turns out, completely wrong about how to treat me. They were my doctor though and I was new to living with the condition they were treating. I assumed they knew what was best, and put up with ineffective and actually harmful treatment for years. It took me that long to overcome my own belief that they Had to know better.

Henway October 27, 2010 at 9:19 am

That experiment has always fascinated me, and I agree with you: people tend to judge others morally when we have no idea what that person is facing in his/her life.

Trish Scott October 27, 2010 at 10:04 am

Well, I’ve walked out of jobs because I felt their “superior customer service”, which I was to be administering, was bordering on abusive and I walked out of a sorority because “hell week” was stupid and abusive and I couldn’t figure out why it existed in the first place and I walked off a job after telling the owner what I thought of his emotional abuse of his wife in front of several employees, so YES, I would have walked away.

Do I blame others for putting up with shit? No. It’s in the culture to put up with shit. I think you have to be very much an outsider to think for yourself. The whole dynamic is clear in the culture of any high school.

I wish I had a solution and were able to effectively implement it but I’m afraid I have no antidote to the effects of family, religion and education as we know it. IMHO the whole system has to fall into ruin for us to have a prayer of changing in the fundamental way required for a healthy connected generation to emerge.

David October 27, 2010 at 9:26 pm

Culture is the main conditioning force in our lives. It’s huge, and I think we underestimate it. There is no readily-implementable solution to the human condition :(

I do hear undertones of superiority in many comments here though, not to pick on you in particular. Many of us believe the average person isn’t very thoughtful. I know I do that.

mike October 27, 2010 at 10:08 am

..Great post…this will go in so many interesting directions…..here’s one…suppose the experimenter had dressed in tea shirt and shorts..would the results be less dramatic?….are we or can we be influenced by clothing?…a man in a suit can in most cases ‘project’ more power and influence than for instance a man in shorts and tennis shoes…our perceptions and opinions of others are influenced (often unconsciously) by what they are wearing…A ‘persona’ can be intentionally ‘manufactured’ with the aid of carefully selected clothing and is often used to influence or even manipulate others…marketer’s have known and used this knowledge for centuries…My next comment on this post will address the subtle and not so subtle use of voice inflextion and the subliminal nuances of speech used to ‘persuade’ others…..

David October 27, 2010 at 9:27 pm

They did test the effect of the experimenter’s attire in subsequent tests and found it had a considerable effect. Clothes make the man.

Partha October 27, 2010 at 10:36 am

Nice post. Sets one thinking. I’d read about it someplace earlier, perhaps a newspaper? You’re right, I too feel sure I would have acted different, but, like you, I wasn’t there either (so who knows?).

I’d like to say two potentially unpopular things here. The point of both things is simple: that human beings are rather despicable creatures. Not even remotely noble. Except, of course, for exceptions.

One: The Nazi experience, while horrific, was no once-in-a-blue-moon exception. We needn’t be so very shocked and horrified about what the Nazis did. Yes, it was indeed horrific and horrible, but it is a very commonplace thing in human history to have acted horribly and shockingly. It’s just that the Nazis lost, and so their excesses were not glossed over but exposed and punished. To take one example: the British “ruled” India for almost two hundred years, and during this time, they committed many atrocities comparable to, and in some cases even more horrendous than, what the Nazis did to the Jews. There so many instances of these atrocities that there’s no point in mentioning individual cases here, except for the most atrocious, the Bengal famine, which the British “Raj” caused directly, and in which millions (yes, you read that right, MILLIONS) died. But because the British did not lose the war (indeed there WAS no war with the Indians), they got away with it. In fact, much of UK’s prosperity during the Victorian age (and, trickling down from that time, even now) is due directly to their bleeding of their colonies, primarily India. Had the British lost a war like the Nazis did, far more of their numbers would have been hanged or shot than were Nazi Germans at Nuremberg and elsewhere. There are many, many, many other such examples in many different parts of the world, even in relative “recent” times (the 20th century and after) that are every bit as shocking as what the Nazis did. It’s just that the Nazis lost, and so were punished for what they did; and the rest (including the British) “won”, and so got away with it. The human race isn’t noble at all. Such atrocious behaviour is what we humans DO, day in and day out, as long as we can get away with it.

The other “potentially unpopular” point. Many, perhaps most, of us eat meat and fish. We’re not particularly cruel people, most of us, but we do it still. Now surely it does not take too much imagination to picture what it must feel like to be killed and eaten. I mean, think about it: you’re walking down the road, perhaps with your wife, perhaps with your two children, and this monster suddenly swoops down, kills your wife, eats her, then kills your older child, eats her two, and then, finally, kills your youngest, who’s only three years old, and then eats him up as well, licking his lips and appreciating how tender his meat is. What would you call this monster, except, well, a monster? And yet that’s precisely what we do, day in and day out, to goats, to chickens, to cows, to birds, to fishes, don’t we?

The fact of the matter is that we humans are inherently sadistic — or at least, indifferent to others’ suffering, at least where our own petty self-interest or comfort is concerned (or, to take the most charitable view possible, we do care, but not enough to do anything about it if our own self-interest or comfort is thus affected).

We humans aren’t very nice people at all. Most of us, at any rate. Not unless we consciously try.

mike October 27, 2010 at 12:27 pm

..sadly..i must agree with you..we are inherently in need of inner regeneration not etiquette…

David October 27, 2010 at 9:40 pm

I think you are absolutely right about the frequency of large-scale atrocity, but I just don’t agree with your conclusion. Humans have demonstrated they are capable of nobility and atrocity. I think sadism is rare and indifference to suffering is not a typical response, when the suffering is immediately apparent. One of the major discoveries of the Milgram experiment was that people are indeed sympathetic even when they are engaged as “agents in a destructive process.”

Human beings, in my experience, are generally good when they are relaxed, and become their most destructive when they are stressed.

Partha October 28, 2010 at 12:43 am

I fully concur with your last statement. When not stressed, when not afraid, when not … well, stressed, most of us are pretty well nice people most of the times.

However, HOW do we define “nice”?

I took those two specific examples in my comment above (the British Raj atrocities, and eating meat) — with due apologies to people of Anglo-Saxon stock and to non-vegetarians, and fully acknowledging that both these “types” have as many good people (as well as “bad”) as other types — since your topic touched these two very factors: (a) atrocities at the time of the Second War; and (b) empathy to others’ suffering.

If I may state my case just a bit in detail …

It’s true that Second War Britain saw many officers who were hugely stressed out, some of whom were sadistic even, but most were not. But the point is this: at that time in the world, I feel that the average British person (or even the average American person, since the US was an ally) was certainly “nice”: yet this spectre did not revolt them (well, most of them). They did not overthrow and execute Churchill and his henchmen (just as most nice German citizens did not overthrow and execute Hitler and his henchmen), but were content to grow fat on the bounty that those atrocities fetched. Some were indeed ignorant of the facts: but most, I would imagine, wilfully ignored this uncormortable fact.

The other example. About eating meat etc. I notice no one here has commented on that aspect. We say we’re empathic, and talk about our probable responses to that rather outlandish experiment: what price our empathy to that goat whose throat we’re slitting, that calf we’re killing, just so we can eat them?

Sorry, again, my intention isn’t to put you fellows off your food, but what I’m saying is this:

Yes, most of us indeed are fairly nice people. That is, yes, most of us aren’t sadists. However, our standard for niceness is pathetically low. We feel for others, yes, but choose to do nothing about that feeling when we find that our own comfort and our own skins may thus be compromised. And that, I repeat, is the most charitable view we can take of our niceness.

If a couple of Martians were to come down today and observe us, would THEY really think we were “nice”, tell me?

But the situation isn’t all despair. It’s okay that we’re not nice. “Nice” is just a word after all. The moment we realize we’re not what we should be, that realization, that recognition, is already half the battle won. But it won’t do to keep our heads in the sand and keep on insisting that humankind is good and gentle and “nice”. Let’s accept what we are: and consciously move on from there to better things.

G October 28, 2010 at 8:40 pm

What I reckon is that we are too quick to talk of ‘human nature’ without understanding the context. When Christopher Columbus first encountered an indigenous tribe of the New World, he found them to be a ‘perfect people’, happy and compassionate, with no concept of property and little strife or conflict. He kept a detailed journal in which he sang their praises. Gradually, as he saw the potential for exploitation, rationalisation crept in: “they are children, they need a firm hand.” Their fate was to be enslavement, starvation, disease, slaughter and rape, at the command of someone who had admired and idealised them. What was the sickness here: ‘human nature’ or Western civilisation? You can say both, I guess, but I don’t think there was ever any question that human nature is 100% robustly good – it is what it is – so what you’re left to work with is culture and conditioning.

I just wish that those peace-loving guys had invented themselves some kind of gatling-gun, just in case…

Lindsay October 27, 2010 at 10:40 am

I’m an empath and there is just no WAY I would’ve been able to continue on doing that and watch someone else suffering.

That being said, I have been a “sheep” before and I’m sure I’ll be one again in this life.

I like to believe in the goodness in human beings. I like to think that, on the whole, human beings are good. But then I look at this planet and the state we’ve put it (and ourselves) in and I just have to wonder…

food for thought!

David October 27, 2010 at 9:47 pm

That’s the thing about being a sheep — we never know when and how we’re doing it. :)

I try not to make it about good and bad. We are all capable of the entire spectrum, from altruism to atrocity. It’s human nature. What we end up doing depends on our conditioning and our circumstances. Moral deliberation is the exception rather than the rule, and I think destructive behavior is not necessarily attributable to a moral shortcoming. We are what we are, but we can get better and getting a handle on our behavior and reducing the amount of suffering we cause.

Jason October 31, 2010 at 11:47 pm

The abstract statement, “it’s human nature” is brought out too often to dismiss too much. Assuming a normal statistical distribution of most traits, “human nature” still refers to an abstract lump of humanity clustered around the mean…in which case most of us are not capable of the extremes.

Regarding morality, I still think you are stuck in a semantic loop…you want to get away from good and bad because they are culturally relative terms but you still talk about altruism and atrocity being on opposite ends of a spectrum (how is that not a relative position as well?). We can get better at handling our behavior? How? By what standard?

Less suffering = good. More suffering = bad. Right? Let’s here it for clear reasoning!

Ken October 27, 2010 at 11:43 am

This experiment is quite interesting… I think it shows a tendency (as does most everything in nature) to take the path of least resistance. By this I mean that it is easier for the Teacher in the experiment to say to him/herself “Well it’s not really me that’s doing the shocking because I’m being told to do so by an authority figure etc…” thereby absolving themselves of any responsibility for their actions.

Humans want life to be easy, heck no one wants to make difficult decisions, endure hardship, or step out of line alone to protest some injustice. I think it is precisely because of this that people who do take the difficult path to uphold their moral values (or whatever label you’d like to give it) are held in such high regard by everyone else; they are heros simply because they have found the strength to do what others can’t.

These people have fought against the natural urge to blend in, to resemble all the other fish in the school and to avoid the predators that are constantly circling, ever vigilant in their quest to identify the outliers, the weak and the non-conformists, to destroy them.

Do I think I would have behaved differently? Like you said David, I would like to think so, but what can one truly ever know for sure unless they are there in the moment with all of its requisite thoughts and emotions, in the hot seat themselves?

David October 27, 2010 at 9:55 pm

By this I mean that it is easier for the Teacher in the experiment to say to him/herself “Well it’s not really me that’s doing the shocking because I’m being told to do so by an authority figure etc…” thereby absolving themselves of any responsibility for their actions.

I think it’s this here that’s at the center of the behavior witnessed in the experiment. Authority gives us an out, morally. A person can’t help but feel less responsible for the consequences of their actions while acting under an authority, even if they don’t consciously think of it that way.

mike October 28, 2010 at 9:22 am

….”A person can’t help but feel less responsible for the consequences of their actions while acting under an authority”……..we in essence mentally “deflect” guilt/responsibility for our actions when submitting (either voluntarily or involuntarily) “under” an authority..at some point our will is consciously and necessarily psychologically abdicated thus serving as the means of absolving us (in this instance) of any/if any guilt associated with morally questionable conduct…thus..”i was just doing what i was told to do” becomes the necessary defense mechanism which enables us to “pass the buck” and to live with ourselves under the shadow of the probing conscience…

Peebles October 27, 2010 at 5:39 pm

I think everyone and their Mom has heard of this experiment, I believe you have good things to say but this wasn’t original.

Trish Scott October 27, 2010 at 5:46 pm

Well, everyone and their Grandmom. I was discussing this one with folks 40 years ago already. Nothing’s changed so I guess it is still a shocker.

David October 27, 2010 at 9:55 pm

Thanks for your contribution.

Astrid October 28, 2010 at 5:27 am

It was original to me, I have never heard of the experiment and certainly had never heard David’s perspective on it. I was bullied by an individual in a corporate job in an office surrounded by ex-army boys and supposed gentlemen. They did nothing, they just hung their heads while I was being victimised. It was a real and raw and rather sad insight into this kind of behaviour for me. But that’s also the experience that brought be to leaving that job and going on a journey which included finding like-minded people like David and his contributors who have all taught me so much. Great post and great discussions too, thank you.

Oh, and if you visit a place like Berlin now, its full of energy and is one of the most liberal and exciting places (artistically, culturally, technologically) in the world, and that is only a very short time after the fall of the Berlin wall, and in relative terms only a short time after WWII. Lets try to look at the lessons we are learning now as inspiration, not look so much to the past to illustrate our points.

Sampath October 29, 2010 at 1:40 am

There is so much violence in the modern, civilized and urban man that he behaves civilly only under compulsion and when those compulsions are removed he is only an animal. All spiritual treatises and self improvement theories revolve around the individual as though he lives in isolation. ‘others’ have never been in the picture, but they are there in your reality.

David October 29, 2010 at 6:52 am

All spiritual treatises and self improvement theories revolve around the individual as though he lives in isolation.

No, I don’t agree at all. Nearly all spiritual traditions stress that community is indispensable. There is a popular myth than spirituality requires you to live alone on a mountaintop or in a cave, but this is an inaccurate stereotype. Sangha, the association with others in your practice, is one of the three pillars of Buddhism.

The motives behind human compassion and kindness are much deeper than culture and conditioning. It is part of our evolution. Young babies have been observed to suffer sympathetically when an animal or another person is being harmed.

Nea | Self Improvement Saga October 29, 2010 at 1:53 pm

I found the details of this experiment quite disturbing, though not surprising. It’s painfully clear to me that most people prefer to follow than to lead. A lot of people are extremely gullible and prone to do what they’re told in a variety of situations. I think this is most evident today in our governments and our corporations.

Although we as individuals have the power to make significant changes in this world, there are few of us willing to stand up to authority. In the workplace, companies get away with unethical & illegal practices because employees don’t stand up to the bosses. Customers, also, seem willing to take whatever big companies dish out.

Politicians and religious leaders are also able to control and manipulate by taking advantage of this follow-the-leader-at-all-cost mentality. It makes me very sad.

I can only hope that people will begin to awaken, thus being true to their Inner Being as opposed to playing follow the leader.

Partha October 29, 2010 at 2:42 pm

“It’s painfully clear to me that most people prefer to follow than to lead.”

That sentence of yours is rather beautiful.

It’s true, we very often blindly follow.

And even when we take the lead, we’re only apparently leading: we often simply gauge what kinds of actions or thoughts are expected of a leader, or we gauge what sorts of actions are likely to be followed, and we jump up and try to do those things: so that, even when we are apparently leading, we’re still simply following. That’s why, in a very fundamental way, most of our apparent leaders aren’t leaders at all.

To really lead is to follow the light in one’s heart. It’s not really important if then you walk alone, or if others follow you. So in a way, what is important is being a leader; and being a leader doesn’t necessarily mean having followers.

But how many of us have that kind of courage, that purity of intention, and that kind of perseverance?

Andy Parsons October 29, 2010 at 9:04 pm

I think a similar situation occurs in many workplaces. I have had numerous jobs included quite senior roles in which my position requires that I deal with people who have “broken he rules” in one way or another.

I have arrested many people, and I have fired numerous people from their jobs. It goes without saying that both actions are extremely unpleasant for the person being arrested or fired.

I chose to get into this type of work because I believe in justice. I believe in the law and in personal responsibility. If people chose to do the wrong thing, they should expect to face the consequences of their choices.

But of course, that is often a gross simplification. Life just isn’t that simple. When I have been in those situations I have usually (but not always) felt perfectly justified and morally right in doing what needed to be done.

But thinking over such situations later, it of course occurs to me that in the majority of cases, the person being arrested, or fired, is not necessarily a bad person really and has probably found themselves in a difficult situation, under stress, depressed, or whatever and thus has done things they otherwise wouldn’t normally do.

Thinking about the experiment you referred to (and I have heard about it before) it occurs to me that in slightly different circumstances it could quite easily have been me being the one to get arrested or fired. I don’t think I’m a bad person.

I’ve become accutely aware over recent years (and this article has only served to make me even more aware) that in workplaces employees tend to feel compelled to carry out certain duties in the manner in which the employer dictates, even if it goes completely against their own personal values. Of course this is understandable to a large extent because as an employee you do need to basically do what the employer says if you want to keep your job!

For example, without being too specific, I have been in one job where I was told by my boss to fire certain staff because they were “too old” and the company could afford to hire 2 or 3 younger staff for the same money as they were paying them.

I knew these staff had done nothing to deserve being fired. In fact one of them was an outstanding employee who worked harder than any of the other staff and probably did the work of at least 2 people.

However I was told to fire these people because they were too old, and I was told to do this by making up something they had done wrong, which nobody could prove they didn’t actually do. I was to give them 2 written warnings for these imaginary misdeeds, and then wait a little while and tell them they’d done it again and were fired (although I did manage to put it a bit nicer than that)!

The point is I didn’t argue with my boss about this, and at the point when I was actually giving out these warnings and telling these people they’d lost their jobs, I felt basically ok about doing so. The reason, I believe, is that I felt I was only carrying out orders and so the moral responsibility rested with my boss (or whoever had told him to tell me to get rid of these staff). It was not my responsibility at all, or at least that’s how it felt to me.

I’ve also been in situations where I have arrested people for shoplifting, and in a few cases after talking to them it has become clear to me that they actually didn’t intentionally do anything wrong, or that they did but they were genuinely in such extenuatiing circumstances (and were showing sincere remorse) that they deserved a break. However I had been under instructions to prosecute all offenders without exception, and so I did.

Once again, whilst my own personal values would probably have me giving these people a break in some situations, I felt I was under instructions that I must behave a certain way and therefore, again, I believed it was not my personal responsibility.

Don’t get me wrong please. I wasn’t totally cold-hearted in these instances and I did express sympathy for the people concerned, but I still felt I was sort of distanced from the decision-making and only doing what I “had to do”.

Perhaps that sort of explains the results of the experiments to some degree, in that the volunteer “teachers” perhaps also felt that giving the electric shocks was not their personal choice.

The obvious difference is that they were volunteers, not employees. They could easily have just walked out. However maybe they still had a belief that the decision to administer those electric shocks was not really theirs, but the experimenters. Maybe in some way that helped them justify it to themselves, or at least made them feel somewhat distanced from the responsibility for any adverse effect on the “learner”.

G October 29, 2010 at 9:53 pm

What an honest and highly relevant admission.

I think that people have the inner resources to maintain their integrity under any adverse circumstances, but that it is very hard and unusual to fully discover these inner resources in one’s lifetime, except perhaps in the occasional outstanding act of nobility. Most of civilised life involves cognitive dissonance and moral compromise, doesn’t it?

I do not feel there is an easy way without personal cost but really to choose to ignore the inner demand for integrity is to degrade life to the point where the rewards of corruption lose their flavour anyway. Or at least, that’s what I reckon.

mike October 29, 2010 at 11:31 pm

…these ‘volunteers’ were paid…which i think more than likely skewed the percentage results yet it does not diminish the moral findings..which is: “Everyone has a price”

Chris October 31, 2010 at 9:11 am

Social proof… group think… societal pressure. All of these come into play. The only way any of these have any influence is the when we decide to hand over our own power to these illusions of self. We project authority because we lack the awareness of our own.

wicked witch November 1, 2010 at 5:25 pm

Last night, for Halloween, I agreed with my friend to decorate her house, but refused to partake in anything particularly scary to young kids (like my friend’s usual spider trick of dropping the rubber thing from over the front door to suddenly land in front of the visitors). Everything had to be static and non-frightening were my rules. I was proud of my decision and it took some convincing. We did, however, go to some effort, to dress up in costumes fitting with the occasion. She was Beetlejuice, I was a wicked witch.
A three or four year old girl and her brother arrived, and in my witchy voice I asked them to “come closer”, ah-hem, all in good fun. The girl slowly inched closer toward me and then begged “don’t scare me, don’t scare me”. Suddenly feeling stupid, I dropped down to her level and assured her she had nothing to be afraid of and I gave her extra candy for being brave. I never thought to take out my fake set of rotton teeth.
Halloween: the authority
Me: the monster

Nash November 15, 2010 at 8:47 am

Forgive me if someone has already commented on this, but the most recent developments in western psychology are poking a rather large hole in American and European psychology’s theories about human nature. As it turns out, most of these experiments about “human nature” were conducted by Westerners and on Westerners. Recently, studies done on other groups of people throughout the world have revealed that past experiments, such as Milligram’s, don’t so much reveal human nature as Westerner’s nature.

Here is a solid article on the topic:

G November 15, 2010 at 10:30 am

Yeah, I made a similar point Nash.

The politics of the present Western world rest upon pessimistic assumptions about human nature and there’s an element of the tail wagging the dog here. We assume that a rational being is a self-interested being so we become more self-interested. We assume that other people are sheeple so we create a world where most people have no power, or even the opportunity to have a well-informed opinion. Why bother to empower a being that is innately too evil and stupid to use power wisely? Better to make it behave in limited, predictable, controllable ways.

Jason November 15, 2010 at 6:45 pm

Sounds a bit conspiratorial. Science isn’t out to prove one thing or the other…just to posit hypotheses and see if the data dis-confirms them…would you have said the same if Milgram’s results had been the opposite?

There are cultural differences (btw every culture is unique…it isn’t “West vs the rest”) but people are primarily motivated by self-interest (rational or not). And people are conditioned by authority…it may be a contingent phenomenon but it does exist.

G November 15, 2010 at 7:24 pm


Regarding rational self-interest.

It’s not really conspiratorial; the error was partly well-intentioned. It was partly due to horror at the disasters that had come of ideological movements.

Tristan November 18, 2010 at 11:28 am

I don’t think anyone was arguing that all “non-Western” cultures are the same… I’m looking around and it is not clear where that came from… Furthermore, regardless of what science is “out to do,” scientific data is up for interpretation. Criticizing the popular interpretation of a scientific experiment hardly qualifies as a conspiracy… Thats just part of science and the pursuit of knowledge in general. Our beliefs and motivations do affect the way we perceive and analyze an experiment like this. My family is full of scientists from my grandfather to my siblings to me and even many of my friends. We believe in science as an effective way to pursue practical knowledge and, oh my, do we argue about the conclusions that come from within the scientific community.

Tristan November 18, 2010 at 11:43 am

On self-interest, human beings are social creatures and, therefore, self-interests and group-interests are not mutually exclusive. This trend is present throughout many forms of life on Earth. Some bacteria will kill themselves when their populations density becomes too high. This seems to go against their own individual interests, but being part of a group of bacteria with that behavior actually increases a particular bug’s chance of survival. Populations without this behavior have a disadvantage as a whole.

You can make a similar argument about humans. There are clear advantages to living as part of a healthy, cooperative group of people, so those capable of supporting such a group have likely experienced an evolutionary advantage over those who are not. Will there be parasites who take more than they give? Probably, but the point is that ones own interests are not entirely separate from the interests of all people in one’s group (What is a group of people now-a-days..? I hesitate to even try to define it). Have you ever noticed that when you lie, cheat, steal or otherwise harass other people, you tend to experience stress, even if your guilt is not known by others? I do not believe that this is an accident or any kind of coincidence.

On that last point, even assuming that there is such a thing as one’s own interest, how were the people in this study acting in their own interests? How is engaging in a brutally distressing behavior because someone else told us to do so proof that we are motivated by our self-interests? They’d have been much happier not shocking someone to death (or believing that they did).

As far as this experiment in particular goes, I agree that it and other studies demonstrate that these disturbing tendencies can be fostered in people, but they are often touted as revealing the fundamental nature of human beings. This is where I believe some people are missing the point. If a behavior is fundamental to human nature, then 100% of people, across all cultures should produce the same behavior. I think that what is really fundamental to human nature is malleability. The way that someone behaves in an experiment like the one described above depends heavily on how they have learned to behave (and, sure, also on their genetics. We are all at least a bit different to begin with) and the very specific scenario set up in the experiment. Some people are viscous murderers carrying out the dirty work of genocide before puberty, others live their entire lives incapable of squashing a spider without guilt. It is nearly impossible to separate human nature from the experience of humans. Frankly, this experiment, while quite interesting, is a clumpy attempt at best to reveal anything fundamental about humans nature.

But seriously, as a study of human behavior in our culture in this particular situation (and be very careful extending it beyond this) it is fascinating.

see “The Stanford Prison Experiment” if you’re not already familiar with it. I know its relatively well known, but it is similarly fascinating and disturbing:

G November 18, 2010 at 6:59 pm


Andrew December 23, 2010 at 12:41 pm

This so called experiment was a made for T.V. movie back in the 1970’s starring William Shattner of Star Trek. This experiment is a carbon copy of this movie. In light of this, did this experiment really take place, or was the story line from the movie used for this article.
As far as the Germany’s WWII concentration camps,
human beings are capable of acts of extreme brutality. Any one person, or a nation of people can be brain washed into almost anything based on specific conditions and circumstances at those times and places.

David December 23, 2010 at 1:14 pm

This experiment took place in 1961. It is very well known.

Fred October 8, 2013 at 6:30 am

This experiment is being conducted by the US government on the citizens right now. The first step is causing pain to the citizens who want to use any of their own monuments and parks that they paid for. The next step will be to roughhouse the people who do not obey by pressuring their congressional representatives to allow the government to continue its spendthrift ways. Then it will be jailing, prosecution, and finally shooting them for not obeying. Cher has already succumbed, and is calling for the shooting of protestors.

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) October 27, 2010 at 9:45 pm

Michael~ seems our opinions disagree as to where we think the majority would step up to ~:-)

The research designs I’ve seen so far do not convince me to be confident in generalizing the results to a wider group of people; including to the populations to which these samples have been drawn.

I think it would be interesting and informative to have cross-cultural studies with first nation peoples, matriarchal cultures and groups such as the Khung~ IMO, think some of them them would laugh at being asked to take such actions; or be horrified at such a suggestion.

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) October 28, 2010 at 12:31 am

hahahaha~ yes, how could one not be moved by these results.

I do stand by what I said, based on these experiments I do not think most of us on the globe would go there.

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) October 28, 2010 at 12:34 am

hahaha~ Peebles!

Yes~ striking. I do not think most of us on the globe would follow such actions, based on these experiments though.

Fred October 8, 2013 at 6:45 am

A large number of those working for the government would, and it would not take the majority of people to produce the results. The “teachers” would be use on a multitude of “students”, so the number of “teachers” could be just a small percent of the population. As the student, you would not be a volunteer in a global application. The Germans proved that it only takes a small group, who have been properly conditioned, to control a large group of innocents. The concentration camps are the proof of this. The government vilifying of selected groups is the start.

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