Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A Mind Worth a Moment

If we pause to think about the atrocities people routinely inflict on one another, such as the Nazi holocaust, most of us ask the same two questions:
  1. Would ordinary people do such horrific things?

  2. Could the same thing happen here and now?

Stanley Milgram’s work in the early 1960s answered both questions: yes.

In a series of experiments that began at Yale, Milgram employed ordinary adults in what they believed to be a study about learning. On the instructions of a white-coated authority figure, the volunteers were told to deliver increasingly high-voltage shocks to a person in another room, an actor they believed to be another volunteer. The shocks weren’t real, but the subjects believed they were. As the shocks increased in intensity, the subjects heard sounds—such as moaning, pleading, pounding on the wall—that led them to believe they were torturing another human being.

Shockingly (pardon the pun), virtually every one of the subjects of these experiments participated far beyond the point where they thought they were inflicting pain. Fully 65% thought they were doing serious harm to (or even, in some cases, killing) their experimental partner. Yet, urged on by authority, they continued.

Everyone needs to know this: We are social animals, programmed to obey. Given the right circumstances, any one of us can become an agent of misery and mayhem. Milgram’s work is doubly important because it could not be duplicated today. Modern experimental ethics wouldn’t allow it because of the psychological stress experienced by the subjects.

Milgram had a knack for asking new questions about the human psyche and exploring them in unusual ways. Though he’s best known for the experiments about obedience, he made other notable contributions, in his all-too-short life, that further our understanding of ourselves and society. He developed original and effective ways to study prejudice, the effects of living in cities, mental maps, and the “small-world phenomenon” (also known as the notion of “six degrees of separation”).

Stanley Milgram was born this day in 1933.

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