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 StanleyMilgram.com.
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.