Essential Intellectual References Weekly #3

Two 20th Century American Experiments on Man's Capacity for Evil

Sax Carrby Sax Carr

A promise is a promise. I swore to move away from the Anicent Greeks. So, this week, we're going about as far as we can and still be considered the past- America in the 20th century. A phrase that, when combined in the context of something like EIRW, scream 'the Scientific Method'. So, we're looking at a couple of experiments in the fields of Sociology and Psychology, where individuals are pushed to their ethical limits. And the results are horrifying.


The Millgram Experiment

This is one of those stories you can't unhear, and will probably directly effect the way you live the rest of your life. Just after World War II, there was quite a bit of talk amongst the Academic community about the Nazis. Let's be honest, they were a fascinating topic, and a lot of people were worried that it might happen again. So, in 1961, a psychologist named Stanley Millgram created the following experiment to see if we could predict the villains of World War III.

Memory? What the hell does that have to do with Nazis?

Here's how it played out. Three people, two rooms, one two-way mirror. A man in a lab coat and a volunteer are on one side, while another man is strapped to electrodes on the other. Onto the fun!

The doctor tells the volunteer that he will be asking the other man, or the 'learner', a number of questions about something he just studied. For every wrong answer, the volunteer would give him an electric shock with the knobby machine. As they got more answers wrong, the shocks would get progressively more intense. And the learner would scream and scream and cry and beg for mercy and occasionally shit themselves. If the volunteer wanted to stop, he was told progressively more intensely how important it was to do, until after a certain point, the doctor would let them go.

Why did they let him go? Because the learner wasn't actually getting shocked at all. Strapped to the chair, in actuality, was an actor pretending to be in horrendous pain when given the right cues. The man in a lab coat? Simply the runner of the test, with no degrees or credentials. Because the test was on the volunteer. The experiment was to see how much someone would break their own moral code because a seeming figure of authority told them to.

That's where the Nazis come in. People were very confused after WWII if the kind of blind dedication in the face of horrifying human rights violations was a purely German trait, or if there was some other factors could identify the capacity for evil under orders in someone before they actually commit it. Really, it was a test to see if the same thing could happen anywhere.

Surprise! It totally can. A whopping 65% of people brought it all the way to the highest voltage, despite wails, pleas and sanitary issues, just because someone in a white coat told them they should. And while that is deeply disturbing, and probably doesn't belong in the comedy section of anything, there is a silver lining. First, nobody actually got hurt… physically. Second, every single person — 100% of people of all races, colors and creeds — questioned the experiment at least once. Because people aren't purely amoral.

If there is one person with a sliver of sanity in the room, we're usually okay. And the fact that 100% of people who did this experiment had an ounce of humanity. So, statistically, we should have at least one person who's willing to volunteer for an experiment for $4 an hour in every government in the world. Problem Solved!

What follows is a recreation of the experiment that's quite a bit less difficult to watch then the original experiments. It is not funny. It is very, very scary and even a bit more sad. Don't watch it if you still have any faith in humanity. Also, read more on the experiment, and the phenomenons of responsibility and conformity, and form some of your own opinions on the matter. They make for great mood killers.

Greatest prank ever, or harrowing realization that your ethics are

far more corruptible then you ever thought possible?


The Stanford Prison Experiment

Organized by Stanford Psychology Professor Phillip Zimbardo, the Stanford Prison Experiment makes Millgram look like a bashful, clawless cat calmly pawing at your ethics. Basically, he took 24 students and randomly divided them into two groups- prisoners and prison guards. Then he built a prison in the basement of a building on campus. Then he locked them in there until they almost all murdered each other.

If you think I'm exaggerating, just keep reading.

The experiment was designed to see what the psychological effects of being a prisoner or a prison guard had on both individuals and a group, while removing the elements of culpability on one side and a salary on the other. The basement was locked, the cameras were turned on, and shit got real.

Which came first, active disobedience chicken or wanton emotional abuse egg?

Within 24 hours, the participants had not only began exhibiting the exact signs Zimbardo predicted (the prison guards punished, deprived and were generally awful to the prisoners, the prisoners disobeyed orders and in response were treated worse), but to an even greater degree than he could have imagined. By the second day, sadistic tendencies started to spring up in the prison guards. By that night, a riot had broke out.

That's right. In a fake experiment in a basement of Stanford, made up entirely of students who didn't know each other and had no criminal pasts or recorded psychological issues, a riot broke out in less than 48 hours. The experiment had to be shut down, but Zimbardo had proven his point. Our prisons are the way they are not because of the people that populate them, but the very nature of how they work.

Of course, this experiment applies to way more than just prisons. It, like Millgram, shows man's capacity for evil when told that it's what they should do. But it also shows the other side, the prisoners, and how easy it is to lose your individuality, sanity and morality in a world that treats you like a malfunctioning object.

While I recommend researching more deeply on both these subjects (there's way more about them than I could possibly fit in one article), I warn again that watching the videos of either will make you lose faith in humanity as a whole. Which, as we all know, is the ultimate joke.

See? I'm laughing so hard I'm crying. Wait… maybe it's only that second part.


Next Week:  Something much less depressing.  Maybe provable falsehoods and the nature of the truth, or something purely academic like that.  I don't want to be sad anymore.