A genuine shocker: Most people will “torture” when commanded

Researchers at Santa Clara University in California have replicated the results of a famous–and notorious–1961 study that found that the majority of people willingly deliver what they believe to be painful shocks to unseen, unknown, but very much heard victims when ordered to do so by authority figures.
Forty-seven years ago, Yale professor Stanley Milgram, inspired by events surrounding the Holocaust and wondering if Nazi operatives were in the main morally intact persons who were in fact “merely following orders,” devised an experimentPDF in which volunteers were told to deliver increasingly severe shocks to a person (actually an actor) who cried out in pain and begged for mercy after each “jolt.” 26 of 40 volunteers went as high on the voltage scale as the experiment allowed–450 volts.


Since then, ethical considerations have discouraged researchers from performing similar experiments. The Santa Clara team led by Jerry Burger worked around this by using an upper limit of 150 volts–the point at which the actor in the Milgram experiment began crying out in pain–and stopping the 150-volt “shocks” after ascertaining whether volunteers moved to administer them. Seventy percent of the 70 volunteers (29 women and 41 men) followed through despite hearing the actor cry out.

Milgram found that, after hearing an actor cry out in pain at 150 volts, 82.5 percent of participants continued administering shocks, most to the maximum 450 volts.
At one point [in the Santa Clara experiment], researchers brought in a volunteer who knew what was going on and refused to administer shocks beyond 150 volts. Despite the example, 63 percent of the participants continued administering shocks past 150 volts.
“That was surprising and disappointing,” Burger said.

Contrast this with the behavior of rhesus monkeys, which, according to a remarkable 1964 study, will “consistently suffer hunger rather than secure food at the expense of electroshock” to other monkeys. As one wise observer put it: “If monkeys could speak our language, do you think they’d tell us there’s no way WE descended from THEM?” Indeed, humans seem unique in their capacity for willful and programmed harm to others of the species.

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  1. #1 by meatbrain on December 20, 2008 - 10:55 am

    There are days, Kevin, when I am convinced that Homo sapiens is a disgrace to the entire evolutionary sequence that spawned it, all the way back to slime mold.
    Then I listen to some Beethoven or Bach, and I feel better.

  2. #2 by Frasque on December 20, 2008 - 11:48 am

    What I find sad about this is that by now the Milgram experiment should really be well known enough that the volunteers would realize what was happening. Do you think it’s a failure of the educational system that it isn’t better known? Or that even if it is well-known, the knowledge still can’t overcome our instinct to obey authority figures?

  3. #3 by Frasque on December 20, 2008 - 11:48 am

    What I find sad about this is that by now the Milgram experiment should really be well known enough that the volunteers would realize what was happening. Do you think it’s a failure of the educational system that it isn’t better known? Or that even if it is well-known, the knowledge still can’t overcome our instinct to obey authority figures?

  4. #4 by Frasque on December 20, 2008 - 11:48 am

    What I find sad about this is that by now the Milgram experiment should really be well known enough that the volunteers would realize what was happening. Do you think it’s a failure of the educational system that it isn’t better known? Or that even if it is well-known, the knowledge still can’t overcome our instinct to obey authority figures?

  5. #5 by Bill from Dover on December 20, 2008 - 2:30 pm

    Just more evidence that it’s OK (whatever it’s is as long as ya can justify it) as long as it is happening to the other guy, and not me.

  6. #6 by Art on December 20, 2008 - 6:38 pm

    As long as there is an authority figure telling people to do it and reassuring them it is okay people will pretty much do anything.
    This is one of the reasons that tirades against out groups are so dangerous. The preacher tells them the others are a threat, God hates them, and people take it as justification and marching orders.
    In effect ordered to commit violence and reassured God, the ultimate authority figure, approves people are released from normal controls.

  7. #7 by yogi-one on December 20, 2008 - 9:01 pm

    Most people will torture, when commanded
    And that is why it is absolutely essential that our Commander-in-Chief make it perfectly clear to all his subordinates that torturing is against the law, against human rights, against proper military interrogation procedures, and punishable in both military and civilian courts.
    Faliure of our current Commander-in-Chief to do so is itself a crime, as far as I am concerned. Lying about it (as in “we do not torture”) is also a crime he should be prosecuted for.
    Where’s our great American free press on this? Nowhere. Disgusting.

  8. #8 by Tree on December 25, 2008 - 9:22 am

    If there was a market for talking about torture, Susan R. Matthews would be rich:
    http://tinyurl.com/8blz5y
    But many of the reviews at Amazon are in this vein:
    “The depth of characterization is impressive, as is the masterful way the author deals with the conflicts that are part of Koscuisko, the main character. I have read both this and the follow-up, Prisoner of Conscience, and both are very well-conceived and well-executed. I will not read any more of the books in this series, though. I read for entertainment. Both Koscuisko and the society that has produced him are extremely grim, and Koscuisko himself is often a difficult character to like. Simply put, he is a torturer, and he gets personal and professional satisfaction out of what he does, despite the conflicts it causes within him. I have read lots of books and seen many movies that depict cruelty and/or bloody events. Violence and conflict don’t bother me. Here, however, you get sadism, and it is almost relished. The acceptance of such brutality is appalling. I found it impossible to like. These books are emotionally or ethically challenging, and depict squallor and misery to an almost nauseating degree. I’ve given them four stars in response to the depth and quality of the writing, but I don’t recommend them for most readers.”
    In my experience, people don’t want to discuss these sorts of moral issues, no matter how inviting the environment the Author creates. The Reader wants to be entertained, not ethically challenged.

  9. #9 by Neuroskeptic on December 26, 2008 - 6:34 am

    Frasque: Yeah that amazes me too. I’m sure if they realized that it was a “Milgram Experiment” they would have stopped it (once you know it’s all a fake, it’s all over), presumably they just didn’t know about it.
    I’ve got some more stuff on the original experiments here

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