Archive for December, 2008

Lunatic Fringe?

Friday, December 5th, 2008

So, there are times when I almost reconsider my faith in humanity. What I try to do, however, is convince myself that people that cockfight toddlers or kill horses with hammers are the exception and not the norm. I hear stories that just hit me in the gut and make me so angry and sad at the same time, but I try not to let myself believe that these people represent more than the fringe of society. I suppose such occurrences wouldn’t really make the news if they were common. And if they’re not common, then they must not be the norm.

How far away is the average person from committing vile acts? With the right motivation, how far would you go? I participated in a study in school that illustrated some disturbing facts about about human psychology and how easily we can cross over into what most would consider to be abnormal and unacceptable behavior. After doing some recent searching, I found a description of the study. It is called the Milgram Experiment. Here is the experiment as stated on Wikipedia.

The experiment

Three people take part in the experiment: “experimentor”, “learner” (“victim”) and “teacher” (participant). Only the “teacher” is an actual participant, i.e. unaware about the actual setup, while the “learner” is a confederate of the experimenter. The role of the experimenter was played by a stern, impassive biology teacher dressed in a grey technician’s coat, and the victim (learner) was played by a 47 year old Irish-American accountant trained to act for the role. The participant and the learner were told by the experimenter that they would be participating in an experiment helping his study of memory and learning in different situations.

Two slips of paper were then presented to the participant and to the “learner”. The participant was led to believe that one of the slips said “learner” and the other said “teacher,” and that he and the actor had been given the slips randomly. In fact, both slips said “teacher,” but the actor claimed to have the slip that read “learner,” thus guaranteeing that the participant would always be the “teacher.” At this point, the “teacher” and “learner” were separated into different rooms where they could communicate but not see each other. In one version of the experiment, the confederate was sure to mention to the participant that he had a heart condition.

The “teacher” was given an electric shock from the electro-shock generator as a sample of the shock that the “learner” would supposedly receive during the experiment. The “teacher” was then given a list of word pairs which he was to teach the learner. The teacher began by reading the list of word pairs to the learner. The teacher would then read the first word of each pair and read four possible answers. The learner would press a button to indicate his response. If the answer was incorrect, the teacher would administer a shock to the learner, with the voltage increasing in 15-volt increments for each wrong answer. If correct, the teacher would read the next word pair.

The subjects believed that for each wrong answer, the learner was receiving actual shocks. In reality, there were no shocks. After the confederate was separated from the subject, the confederate set up a tape recorder integrated with the electro-shock generator, which played pre-recorded sounds for each shock level. After a number of voltage level increases, the actor started to bang on the wall that separated him from the subject. After several times banging on the wall and complaining about his heart condition, all responses by the learner would cease.

At this point, many people indicated their desire to stop the experiment and check on the learner. Some test subjects paused at 135 volts and began to question the purpose of the experiment. Most continued after being assured that they would not be held responsible. A few subjects began to laugh nervously or exhibit other signs of extreme stress once they heard the screams of pain coming from the learner.

If at any time the subject indicated his desire to halt the experiment, he was given a succession of verbal prods by the experimenter, in this order:

– Please continue.

– The experiment requires that you continue.

– It is absolutely essential that you continue.

– You have no other choice, you must go on.

If the subject still wished to stop after all four successive verbal prods, the experiment was halted. Otherwise, it was halted after the subject had given the maximum 450-volt shock three times in succession. This experiment could be seen to raise some ethical issues as Stanley Milgram deceived his study’s subjects, and put them under more pressure than many believe was necessary.

As you will read in the results analysis, a full 65 percent of experiment participants administered the experiment’s final 450-volt shock.

Now, in this instance, the motivating factor had to do with authority and obedience – which has as much to say about conformity as anything, but the point is how easily the majority of people can be convinced to do something horrendous.

What this says to me is that people aren’t necessarily mostly good or mostly bad, but rather they are easily influenced by those in authority. I find this to be indicative of our need to be led. I think these results say a lot about our nature.

I have frequently stated my dislike for authority – particularly when it is abused. And frankly, studies like this make me even more wary. I still think most people in positions of authority shouldn’t be, and that many of them get there because of their charisma and tenacity – not because of their qualifications, character or integrity.

But I am reassured through all of this that I do need a Leader. It is my nature to serve a higher authority. And thanks to the promises in the book of Acts, I no longer need a go-between. I don’t need a priest to relay my thoughts to Him. I don’t need a middle man.

So how “good” are we? Maybe we are only as good as our compass. Choose wisely.