When I was teaching high school, students often asked: If it’s true that humans are (or can be) compassionate, why is there so much human-caused suffering and hurt in the world?
One scientific experiment greatly influenced, for decades, how many people thought about this question. This is the “obedience experiment” carried out by Stanley Milgram in the early 1960s, just after the beginning of the Eichmann trial. In that experiment, a volunteer was asked to play a teacher to help another person, the “student,” learn word pairs. Each time the “student” replied with the wrong word, the “teacher” would seemingly give them an electric shock. The voltage of the shock was increased with each wrong answer.
The “teacher” sat in one room before an electronic control panel and could see through a window into the room where the “student” sat hooked up to wires. A white-coated experimenter stood in the room with the “teacher” encouraging and instructing with comments like, ”Continue using the 450 volt switch for each wrong answer.” The experimenter repeated these instructions even as the “student” began to scream⎼ and later drop over, silent. The “teacher” raised objections at times; but as the instructions continued, the “teacher” continued the shocks. The student was, in fact, an actor; the shocks to the “student” were not real. However, the emotional effect on the “teacher” was real.
It was initially reported by Milgram that 65% of the “teachers” continued to shock their students even to a lethal level. But, according to author and researcher Gina Perry, that statistic was only true with one of the 24 versions of the experiment. There were over 700 people involved in the experiments, and the 65% represented only 26 people. There were some variations of the experiment where no one obeyed the authority. If she is correct, this drastically changes how we might understand the experiment.
The philosopher Jacob Needleman studied the visual recordings of the experiment and commented on the facial expression and speech of one of the “teachers.” When questioned just after the experiment was over, the “teacher” said, “I don’t like that one bit. I mean, he [the “student”] wanted to get out and we just keep throwing 450 volts…” The teacher was dazed, and under further questioning couldn’t let themself comprehend what they had done. They couldn’t comprehend their own feelings let alone allow themselves to feel what the “student” might have felt.
A startling parallel to Milgram was a series of experiments by Doctor of Psychology, Daniel Batson, who tested whether people would act compassionately to save others from suffering. In one experiment, volunteer subjects, like Milgram’s teachers, watched people receive shocks when they incorrectly answered a memory task. The volunteer was told the person they were watching had suffered trauma as a child. They were then given the choice to leave the experiment or receive the shock intended for the supposed trauma victim. Many subjects felt such compassion for the other person they actually volunteered to take on their pain.
What is the message of these experiments? Milgram’s experiment is often considered a cautionary tale revealing the potential for evil in all of us⎼ and the “evil” demonstrated by Milgram arises from our propensity to obey authority despite clear evidence of the wrongness of the act. But why do we hear so much more about this experiment than Batson’s, whose work demonstrates the capacity for compassion?…
Happy New Year, and may 2024 be an even better year for all of us than we imagine.
*To read the whole article, please go to The Good Men Project.