Milgram experiments

This weekend’s Radiolab was on Evil.  In particular, why people do things that they know to harmful or deadly to others.

The first third of the show or so was on the infamous Milgram experiments, and every HP:MoR reader knows the role it plays in the fic.  Every psych undergrad knows the experiment for its result on obedience: that normal humans will inflict potentially lethal shocks to another human because someone tells them to.  This is probably because the context for the Milgram experiments is the war crimes and crimes against humanity of the Nuremberg trials.  “Just following orders” is now known as the Nuremberg defense.

However, the guest make two important comments.  First, Milgram’s follow-up experiments altering the scenario show that level of compliance varies depending on the circumstances.  In particular, compliance is lowest when the subject witnesses disagreement about whether the experiment should continue.

Second, Milgram scripted four prods to see what was needed to get compliance:

  1. Please continue.
  2. The experiment requires that you continue.
  3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  4. You have no other choice, you must go on.

The guest noted that the fourth prod, the direct order, never made any subject continue.  If the subject resisted continuing the experiment, the most forceful wording did not change his mind.  From this, he concludes that the real lesson in the experiment is not that humans obey orders.  Rather, there’s something else that caused normal people inflict potentially lethal shocks: namely that they were helping to further science.  That people will do bad things if they think there is a for a good cause.

I readily accept that humans use “the higher cause” as a justification for their actions.  Look at pretty much every war and atrocity perpetrated in the name of religion.  However, I think prod #3 is pretty forceful: “absolutely essential” is very strong wording.  The “must” in #4 is not as strong.  The difference in #4 is the “you have no choice.”  It may be that using the word “choice” reminds the subject that this actually is a choice.

Back to the first point, I think this underlines the importance of people being able to express their disagreement with the government and authorities, especially to other citizens.  Edward Snowden is still in the news.  The NSA might read what I write more closely because I included those two words.  Snowden is a guy who said no, the experiment should not continue.  (Note: in debriefing questionnaires, many Milgram experiments didn’t say all experiments should be stopped, but that they personally would not continue being a part of them.)  However, he could have picked secrets that didn’t put people’s lives in danger.  That seems to be what the US government thinks is Snowden’s and Bradley Manning’s worst crime: “aiding the enemy.”  Was there evidence that embarrasses the US out of some of its more heinous acts (done for the greater good, I’m sure) without putting operatives at risk?


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