Do you listen to Radiolab? Because, if not, you totally should. It’s one of my favorite podcasts. They did a great program called The Bad Show, all about why people do bad things. A perpetually fascinating topic, especially to anyone who’s ever tried to invent a villain.
I suggest listening to the Radiolab show, which is fascinating and entertaining.
I’m interested in the segment about the Milgram experiment. You’ve probably heard of it before, but in case you haven’t and don’t want to listen to the show, here’s a quick summary.
Milgram ran a test where a bunch of guys in lab coats instructed volunteers to deliver electric shocks to an actor masquerading as another volunteer. The real volunteer asked the actor volunteer questions, and each time the actor responded incorrectly, the volunteer delivered a shock. The electric shocks were not real, but the actors pretended that they were. The real volunteer was told that the shocks increased in intensity with each wrong answer & so the actor screamed, pounded at the wall, and eventually begged for the volunteer not to deliver further shocks. All along the way, lab coat guy instructed the volunteer to proceed with the experiment. If the volunteer continued to deliver shocks, the actor volunteer would fall silent – seemingly dead.
Sad truth? 65% of all the real volunteers were willing to kill the fake actor volunteer. Because they were told to. In the 1960s. In the US.
The experiment illustrates the extent to which people are willing to pass their own moral compass into someone else’s hands. Especially the hands of someone with authority. Or just a lab coat.
I’d heard about this experiment plenty of times but I only heard about that first, most famous iteration. The Radiolab show pointed out something I had never heard, which is that Milgram repeated the experiment 19 times with different variations. Of those nineteen, there was one variation of the experiment which caused all the real volunteers to take a stand and refuse to proceed.
What might that be, you ask? Well, remember that the volunteers tended to voice objections along the way. Lab coat guy would encourage the volunteer to proceed, using a selection of scripted phrases. When the volunteer spoke up with some qualm — “Hey, this guy sounds like he’s really hurting, maybe we should stop shocking him!” — if lab coat guy said, “You have no other choice, you must go on,” the real volunteer would decide it was time take a stand. 100% of the time, they’d end the experiment.
The Radiolab guys saw this as proof that we all have a seed of goodness in us. That just as 65% of us can be pushed to senseless murder, so can 100% of us be pushed to righteous rebellion. And, okay, sure, they can read it that way if they want.
Personally, I took a different view. To me, it sounds like the only way to make 100% of the real volunteers say no to murder is to put their own freedoms at stake. They’ll end another person’s life with a little bit of encouragement — or, at least, take actions that leave them convinced they’ve killed another person — but the second they feel the pinch themselves? Then it’s time to take a stand.
Basically, people are selfish. That’s not news. And it’s so universal as to be…neutral, in a sense. One of those “pull the beam out from your own eye before trying to remove the speck from your brother’s” situations. I’m not going to be judgey about it.
But the show stuck in my mind. It’s a good exploration of the subject matter. I was excited to get a new perspective on an experiment that I’ve heard name-checked so many times. And I wanted to add my own $0.02. Agree/disagree?