Taking a break from the Daily Prompt for a day, guys. I recently read an article by Philip Meyer, “If Hitler Asked You to Electrocute a Stranger, Would You? Probably.” This article was the inspiration for the poll at the end of my blog yesterday, and likewise the inspiration for the blog today.
It is safe to assume that everyone, or at least the major population, will come across the question, “What would I do if I were forced to do something at gunpoint?”. If not that question, then some variation. Would I make the right choice, even if it was hard to do? Would I be able to stand against the majority of people if they, or what they were doing, contradicted my moral beliefs? Would I be the hero, villain, or bystander? I know I have seen an action movie, or read a profound autobiography and wondered whether I would have the guts or conviction in my beliefs to say no against tyranny, fight when there is no hope, or even know whenever someone or something is wrong. That is a great fear of mine; to follow someone’s lead without question, and they end up being wrong. This article takes a look into Stanley Milgram, a social psychologist from the sixties, who set out to test the willingness of humans to obey a higher authority figure. The results of his experiments and studies are dark and surprising.
Stanley Milgram was determined to test “The Shirer Thesis” which basically stated that Germans have a special trait, the readiness to obey authority without question, and this explains why the German population followed so readily in Adolf Hitler’s insane footsteps. Milgram wanted to try it out on Americans first and then try it out on Germans. He wanted to see if Germans were more obedient than Americans, and if so he wanted to try to find out what made people more obedient that the others. Briefly, his experiment went a little something like this:
You are chosen off the street by a scientist needing volunteers for an education experiment. The experiment would take an hour and it would pay. The experiment would be testing the effectiveness of negative reinforcement versus positive reinforcement. There would be a teacher and a student. You are the teacher, and your job is to ask the students questions. If they answer correctly, there is no reward, but if they answer incorrectly you are to give electric shocks. The electric shock voltage increases as the number of incorrect answers increase. The voltage maxes out at 450 volts, which is painful and deadly. However, what you would not know is that the volunteer off the street is a paid actor. The electric shocks you are giving him is not real.
Now, I don’t know how many of you guys voted in my poll yesterday; I’m still not proficient at this website. *Groan* What I do know is that 100% of ya’ll voted that you would not participate in the experiment at all. That is comforting to me a little, because as I said the results of his experiment were shocking. When predicting the outcome of the trials, Milgram and fourteen Yale psychology majors, thought that the most number of people who would be willing to administer the shocks all the way up to 450 volts would be three out of 100. In his first experiment he used all Yale students as subjects. They all administered the shocks, all the way to the end of the board (the deadly shock). This was an obstacle Milgram planned to overcome by adding a different variable to the experiment: protests from the “learner”, ranging from mild grunts to begging and screaming in anguish. 65% of the “teachers” still kept pushing those buttons, and administering shocks. Disheartened and in disbelief at the numbers Milgram moved his experiment to a different town. He found less obedience there but still a shocking 48% who were willing to be obedient to the point of ending another person’s life, even for an experiment.
The article is more in depth and continues on about Milgram’s theories about human’s behavioral operating modes and how he felt about how his experiment went. If your interested… it’s quite worth the read; click here to read the whole article.
So after reading the article I couldn’t help ponder what I would have done if I had been chosen as a teacher. I know that, honestly, I would have participated. Since I would have been led to believe that the other man was indeed another volunteer and that we both had the freedom to leave, I would have administered some shocks in the name of science. Now don’t get all huffy with me, I’m not saying I would have administered the higher volts of electricity, because I know I wouldn’t have been okay with that. I mean, I can’t stand to accidentally step on my dog’s foot, let alone purposely inflict serious pain on another person. Forget it. However, I’m not that naive to say I would’ve been able to see through it from the get-go. This is the problem though, I bet most of those 65 and 48 percenters would have said the same thing. So what makes me so sure, besides my conscience, that I would have had the forethought and strength to tell the doctor/scientist, No…I don’t want to do this anymore. It coincides with the other questions we all ask ourselves. Could we say no? Would we be the minority and be the hero, or would we be a villain. To use a real life example, like Milgram, if I were a German man/woman back in the 1930’s-40’s…would I have been a Nazi or no? Of course, sitting in present day with all the knowledge I have now of the Third Reich, I vehemently protest, “No!”. I have to believe that if I had been born in that time, and in that place, I would have the same morals and beliefs as I do now. It’s a tough question. It’s a look at yourself in the mirror type of question. It’s too-much-for-a-Tuesday-afternoon-with-no-coffee kind of question.
What I want to know is what do ya’ll think out there, about it all? About Milgram’s experiment and his theory, about the outcome, and about what role you feel like you would have played in the experiment. Leave comments below, and thanks for reading!