Does fake torture save real souls?

Illustration for article titled Does fake torture save real souls?

The Milgram Experiments showed that sixty percent of volunteers would help 'torture' someone if ordered to. What happened to the people who volunteered to be the torturers afterward? Not what you'd expect.


At Yale in the sixties, Stanley Milgram conducted one of the most infamous experiments in all psychology. He recruited volunteers, and had them sit in a waiting room. In the waiting room they met another 'volunteer' - actually an actor. The real volunteer and the fake one were informed that they were going to participate in an experiment which tested the effect of physical punishment on learning. They drew lots to see who would be the 'teacher' and who would be the 'learner'. The real volunteer always drew the role of teacher, and was escorted into another room. They were kept in audio contact with the learner, and observed by the actual person running the experiment.

The learner was to answer questions. When they got a question wrong, the teacher was to administer shocks of ever-increasing intensity. The learner started out good-natured about the shocks, but as they increased would begin screaming in pain, although of course no actual shocks were administered. If the teachers asked questions or wanted to leave, experimenters replied to them with increasingly authoritarian responses.


Milgram found that, although the volunteers questioned and expressed a wish to stop, around sixty percent of them kept going until the experiment was stopped. The results of the study were made public, and that sixty-percent has played the goat in science, pop culture, and cocktail party psychology ever since. Many people wonder how they did such a thing, why they did such a thing, and swore that they would never do the same. Some people have even questioned whether or not the experiment was ethical, since learning that they would probably kill someone if a man in a white coat told them to is not an easy thing to face for anyone.

Milgram sent out questionnaires to the study participants, asking them about their feelings on the experiment. Not all of them responded, but of those who did, 84 percent rated the experiment as a positive experience for them. Another fifteen percent rated it as neutral. Given the traumatic nature of the Milgram experiment, it seems that most of those had to be the people who stopped the test. Not so. In fact, one of the people who continued corresponded with Milgram for years, and offered this observation.

While I was a subject in 1964, though I believed that I was hurting someone, I was totally unaware of why I was doing so. Few people ever realize when they are acting according to their own beliefs and when they are meekly submitting to authority.

The subject went on to talk about how his experience with the experiment made him choose to register as a conscientious objector. Although not all people decided to initiate this kind of self-examination, and those who were traumatized probably wouldn't be likely to admit it to the institution that traumatized them, perhaps a shock is good for the system after all.

Via Neohumanism.


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Corpore Metal

This, along with the Stanford Prison Experiment, can really depress a person about human nature. Our brains and minds where shaped by ancient forces that affect us to this day. We can step outside them but only if we are aware they are there and with lots of effort.