What would you say if you were asked to administer electric shocks to a person you don’t know just because he gave you the wrong answer to a question?
I bet you’d say you wouldn’t do it.
According to Milgram, there is a 75 per cent chance that you would.
In the early sixties Milgram had finished his PhD in psychology and was an assistant professor at Yale. He had witnessed the crimes committed by the Nazis with horror, and as a young Jew he wanted to understand how human beings could commit such terrible acts.
At that time the Nuremberg trials had taken place, and many of those accused of genocide and crimes against humanity defended themselves by claiming that they had just been following orders.
Could this explain why the Holocaust had happened?
To answer this question, Milgram designed one of the most disturbing experiments ever conducted in the field of authority and obedience, which became known as the Milgram Experiment.
The experiment involved recruiting around 1,000 people via a newspaper ad. The participants were ordinary people who were told that they were going to participate in an experiment about memory.
The participants were put into pairs; one was the teacher and the other was the learner. The learner was chosen by Milgram and pretended to be a participant.
The learner was placed in a room on his own with electrodes attached to his arms. The teacher was allocated a separate room next to that of the learner, with an electric shock generator that could apply from 15 to 450 volts.
The experimenter sat next to the teacher and told him or her to administer an electric shock every time the learner made a mistake.
The learners were chosen by Milgram for the experiment and they didn’t received electric shocks but pretended that they did, protesting and complaining and asked for the experiment to finish.
Milgram wanted to measure how people reacted when ordered to inflict pain to others, even when they could hear the other person complaining.
The result was that two thirds of the participants went up to the maximum 450 volts, despite the learners’ protests.
Just because they were told to do so.
To be fair, the participants didn’t blindly follow orders. They asked questions, they resisted and they argued, but they ended up administering what they thought was strong electric shocks.
What would you have done?
Would you administer 450 volts to a person you don’t know because somebody sitting next to you told you to?
We tend to think that because we have principles and ethical standards we would never do something like this. We’re good people, and good people don’t do that kind of thing.
Let me challenge all this for a moment.
First, when similar experiments were conducted the results were almost the same. Milgram only noticed some variation if the learner and the students were sitting in the same room, or when teachers saw other teachers refusing to administer the shock.
You might be thinking ‘Come on Natalia, this experiment was conducted in the sixties! Things are different now.’
What if I told you that it was replicated 13 years ago with similar results?
Scary, isn’t it?
Where does all this leave us?
Do you still believe that being good and ethical is enough to protect us from doing wrong?
Let’s look at those who resisted.
What about the 25 per cent who decided to stop participating in the experiment? Were they Christians, or Buddhists – maybe they voted for X, or were they nurses, maybe males or young females? What did they have in common?
The only commonality was how they reacted when they heard the other person complain about the pain they believed they were inflicting on them.
All the participants, hearing the learner complain after they administered the electric shock, paused, but those who refused to continue with the experiment did something different.
They addressed the learner, asking him if he was OK and whether he wanted to continue the experiment.
It’s that simple.
What protect us from doing horrible things is not our principles and standards, our ideology or our concept of being a good citizen, but our empathy.
Empathy prompts us to ask questions about how people live in toxic environments, or makes us want not to remain silent when we see wrongdoing.
That’s how you fight evil, corruption, expensive mistakes, authoritarian cultures, cynicism, and unethical behaviour.
Evil acts are as human as any compassionate behaviour you can think of.
Following orders was not what made the Nazis kill; rather it was being in an environment from which empathy had been erased. So please, don’t call empathy a soft skill any more, because softness for others is what protects us from cruelty, the abuse of power, unethical behaviour and toxic environments.
Not an ideology, not mission statements, not thinking that we’re a good citizen, but the simple and human act of caring. If you can do that every time you have a conversation at the workpalce, you’re already making a difference.