Walk away

Last night on ABC, "Primetime" revived Stanley Milgram's famous 1961 experiment in which people were asked to administer electric shocks to other people. The set-up included a scientish-looking character in a lab coat who explained to random people that a subject in an adjoining room should be sent shocks via a switchboard if he/she answered a question incorrectly. Participants were told it was not dangerous to the shock receivers.

The hidden camera rolled and showed person after person flipping a switch to send up to 150 volts of electricity through someone they couldn't see. Of course, no one was really hooked up to the device, and the "ouches" were pre-recorded. But the participants didn't know that. It was fascinating so see how far up the switchboard these men and women would go (increasing voltage for more wrong answers). The recorded shockee would finally protest to the shocks, claiming his heart was giving him trouble, at which point the man in the lab coat would reassure the participant that there was no physical harm resulting.

The point of all this was to observe what people will do if someone with authority asks them. It was also a study of responsibility -- people who wanted to stop the shocks early felt THEY were hurting an individual. People who kept going later said it was because the EXPERIMENTER told them to. One can imagine the dilemma of being told that nothing was wrong in spite of what your senses were telling you.

I must admit my own fear of falling into the category of "continuous shocker," if only because I'm very trusting of people "in the know" -- if he says it's OK, it has to be OK, right? But then I remember that one important variable that some of the participants overlooked: I'm not REQUIRED to participate at all. With all due humility, I think I actually would have been a quitter. Not because I have impunable moral fiber, but because I'm a little braver than I was as a child. Back then I was shy and sensitive and would have done just about anything to avoid a scene. But these days I let my gut do a little more of the talking. Life's too short to do things you deem inappropriate.

I also find it very comforting that the "I did as I was ordered" defense doesn't hold up in our courts. Why should it? When is is it ever OK to do something just because someone asked you to? When people aren't sure how to answer those questions, awfulness such as the teenage strip-search at McDonald's results. If you don't know this story already, it will leave you shocked and dumbfounded. The people involved in this real-life experiment of morality and obedience are certainly NOT the norm. And the whole time, this young girl said she was afraid not to comply because they were grown-ups and "you always do what grown-ups say." WHO RAISED THIS CHILD?

I realize I've crossed my subjects a bit here. They are related, though, aren't they? The moral of the story is this: In this world, we have many obligations to our jobs, our families and our communities, which means having to do things we don't necessarily WANT to do. But Lord willing, we will never feel compelled to do something we SHOULDN'T do.


SerineKat said...

It's great to be up and blogging again with my old buddies on the net.
As for your post. The experiment was also talked about in Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. It was used to explain how traders with Enron were able to withold power to California during the recent energy crisis. The culture created at the top of the management chain in Enron quickly spread through the company becuase if the big guys can do it... then we should too.
I've seen this mentality played out in job after job and click after click. What would sacrifice to eat, gain acceptance, or keep your job? In my internal auditing classes in college we were taught that everyone has the ability to lie, cheat and steal. The trick is to create a management culture that doesn't tolerate and then a system of checks and balances and separation of duties.
As Lois said... you do have a choice... you always have a choice but an arguement can be made that sometimes that is hard to imagine or see (in extreme circumstances). I think we live in a culture where it's more acceptable to please people than to think for ourselves. That's what that experiment shows... that we're sheep and we need to challenge ourselves more.

girlfriday said...

It's just hard to know who to listen to sometimes. Instincts lie, for better or worse. So do people.

God doesn't. That's a comfort.

Everyday Anne said...

Disturbing, Lois. I'm not sure if I'd be a quitter or not, but your post begs the question.