Sunday, December 21, 2008

"The Experiment Requires That You Go On"

CNN ran a story today about the so-called "shock" experiment that took place at Yale University in the early 1960s. The legacy of Stanley Milgram, who died 24 years ago on December 20, reaches far beyond that initial round of experiments.

His experiment in its standard form included a fake shock machine, a "teacher," a "learner" and an experimenter in a laboratory setting. The participant was told that he or she had to teach the student to memorize a pair of words, and the punishment for a wrong answer was a shock from the machine.

The teacher sat in front of the shock machine, which had 30 levers, each corresponding to an additional 15 volts. With each mistake the student made, the teacher had to pull the next lever to deliver a more painful punishment.

While the machine didn't generate shocks and a recorded voice track simulated painful reactions, the teacher was led to believe that he or she was shocking a student, who screamed and asked to leave at higher voltages, and eventually fell silent.

If the teacher questioned continuing as instructed, the experimenter simply said, "The experiment requires that you go on," said Thomas Blass, author of the biography "The Man Who Shocked The World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram" and the Web site

About 65 percent of participants pulled levers corresponding to the maximum voltage -- 450 volts -- in spite of the screams of agony from the learner.

Mr. Blass concludes that most people when confronted with a legitimate authority figure will act against their conscience if called to do so. Do you think that's true? Would anyone offer a comment admitting that he or she could be one of them? Not me, I hasten to tell you.

In my personal experience, I have two situations that relate. One is a lifelong observation of people in positions of power. My belief is that 95% abuse that power. Much of that abuse is minor, I grant you, a tone of voice, a disparaging look, but it counts as abuse in my book. On the other extreme of the spectrum are cases of police brutality, domestic violence and such. The CNN article talks about the Stanford Prison Experiment which addresses this tendency. And, of course, that famous aphorism, "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely," covers it too.

Another personal experience is the tendency of people working in bureaucratic organizations who go into what I call "compliance mode." This is when explicit or implicit orders come down from above and the middle level manager blindly obeys, too often enthusiastically. Sometimes these policies or instructions are badly thought-out, I suppose the ones making these decisions are too far removed from the ones who will actually implement them to have a real feel for their efficacy. The result is ever increased difficulty wading through the already difficult paper shuffling.

I'm happy to report that I've resisted both of these types of behavior, usually as a recipient by expressing my opposition in various ways, and sometimes as a doer by simply trying to avoid or diminish the problem. How about you? Have you seen these things at work? How have you reacted and what have you done?

As a prison guard, would you abuse your power? If it's true that most would, what does this say about the prison guards working today? Should something be done about that?

Please feel free to comment.


  1. And you want to still have people give up their right to keep and bear arms, exactly why?

  2. I've been a rebel as far back as I remember, I do nothing against my conscience. I've quit more jobs in a year than many have held in their lifetimes. I've kicked people out of my house and life including family.

    Nobody makes me do anything I don't want to and I'll emphasize that point by force of arms if need be.

  3. I love the way you guys always (or often) bring it back to guns. Briefly my questions are 1. what percentage of people in power abuse that power?, and 2. have you ever been one of the abusers?

    Now, I realize I'm asking you to forget about guns for a minute to consider those ideas.

    There are other questions you could glean out of the post, but those are two good ones.

  4. 99% abuse power.
    I've never abused that power, I've quit jobs over people asking me to do things against my conscience before I moved into the world of self-employ.

  5. Mike,

    I think your definition of abuse of power is too broad. Under that definition - disparaging looks and tone of voice - every one has abused their power. Especially us as parents.

    Given this study, how can you not be concerned about a totalitarian government. Nazi Germany should prove that good people can be convinced to do bad things or at least no oppose bad things.

    Our rights are being degraded at an ever increasing rate, including our 2nd amendment rights the very last line of defense.

    Human nature is to abuse power, the Constitution was designed to limit that abuse of power. That is the beauty of the document and the legacy we have to uphold.

    Guess my question back to you is this: What are you personally doing to fight the real and potential abuse of power?

  6. Briefly my questions are 1. what percentage of people in power abuse that power?, and 2. have you ever been one of the abusers?

    the first would depend on what you consider "abuse". i suspect the most valid answer will be "too high a percentage".

    on the second, well, i don't think i've personally ever had enough power to abuse it. i've had (and still do have, and it's possible i may have abused) privilege, what with being a male, pale-skinned person with at least some amount of money in the USA, but i'm not convinced "privilege" is the same as "power".

  7. Mike,

    Another follow up study to Milgram's experiment found here.

    I was struck the most by this line:

    Finally, they had been told that they should not feel responsible for inflicting pain; rather, the "instructor" was accountable. "Lack of feeling responsible can lead people to act in ways that they might otherwise not,'' said Burger.

    This is why I harp on accountability so often, because the consequences of not being accountable are so horrendous.

  8. Bob asked, "What are you personally doing to fight the real and potential abuse of power?"

    I'm writing this blog, talking to friends, raising my kids the best way I can, pointing out abuses when I see them. But, none of this am I doing in an extreme way with grandiose ideas about my own power and influence. I'm just being me, in other words.

  9. People think nothing of animals screaming in slaughterhouses, and they continue eating meat. It doesn't seem to bother them. Why should humans be different?

    I can't stand to think of any beings in pain. I could never kill an animal or human unless it was a clear-cut matter of self-preservation. Speaking personally, I could not participate in the experiment, period.

  10. I'm with you Daisy about the eating.