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.