In 1961, psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments on ‘obedience’, at Yale University, to understand people’s relationship with authority.
The idea arose from his family’s past, of Jewish descent, persecuted by the Nazis for the already known atrocities carried out in the concentration camps. Milgram intended to understand the subjects’ willingness to obey an authority figure who instructs them to practice acts that go against their conscience.
Under the pretext of testing the ability of humans to learn, the experiment involved a task between two volunteers, a student and a teacher, without eye contact between them during the experiment. The volunteer, in the role of teacher, was asked to punish the student whenever there was a wrong response, through an electric shock machine, with an increasing intensity from 50 to 450 volts. The shocks served as an incentive to learning. The student, a member of the Milgram team, emitted uncomfortable sounds and screams (pre-recorded) with each shock received.
Over 700 people took part in the study and most continued to inflict the shocks after being encouraged to continue and assured they would not be held accountable. During the experiment, some subjects laughed or showed other signs of extreme stress when they heard the screams of pain coming from the student. Although most people got embarrassed and a minority were enthusiastic, they applied the shocks even after the student screamed in pain, asked to stop the experience, and even stopped talking, appearing to have fainted or died. Still, none of these reactions were enough for most participants to refuse to continue, not knowing that the machine did not shock, and the student’s reactions were simulated.
Is this evidence that the human being, in his essence, is sadistic?
When we are born, we experience a range of primary emotions, which means that we think and behave in a very primitive way. Anger? Attack! Pleasure? Consume everything as quickly as possible! We are dominant animals. Have you ever noticed how most children play when they have no adult supervision? A real battlefield! Does this mean that children are, in their essence, bad? No! It means that we are born with a propensity for aggressive and dominant behavior, but we are also born with a propensity to understand other more functional relationship styles, as long as we are educated to it.
That is why societies have developed over the centuries. Throughout development, we educate young people to think in a more thoughtful, responsible and respectful way. Those who learn to value intrinsic abilities become confident people. Others, who become insecure, turn controlling and hungry for power.
Milgram’s experience does not show that the human being is cruel. It shows that cruelty is a feeling that is part of being human, but more than that, that most people have difficulty in dealing with complex decisions when they involve various feelings, such as the one they are confronted with in the experience: the decision to cause pain to someone, when there is an authority figure who takes responsibility. Some people did it because, in fact, they would have a high propensity for aggression, but most did it because they weren’t mature enough to confront authority.
Perhaps the ethical sense of the experience is shocking. But the real social shock was the revelation that most people didn’t do against the orders they received, even if they did not morally agree. The complex decision culminated in most of the participants assuming a childish attitude of submission, giving up their freedom of choice.
For further reflection, I only add the suggestion that you watch the film!