Our Shocking Capacity For Evil


A recent book about the legacy of the famous Milgram obedience experiments, Behind the Shock Machine, has unearthed similar controversial experiments that were performed at La Trobe University during the 1970s. The Milgram experiments were conducted in 1961 in the wake of Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem and involved test subjects being ordered by an official to dispense electric shocks to another person. The aim was to test whether there was mutual intent among those who prosecuted the Holocaust.

Why do these experiments continue to grab our attention? Can we better understand our own capacity for cruelty?

In high school I participated in a series of social psychology experiments designed to measure the likelihood that people would be true to their word. In one of these trials, I sat down next to a woman on a park bench and asked her if she would mind watching my bag for a moment. I reassured her that I would be back in less than five minutes and she agreed.

In the second part of the experiment my classmate came to the bench and took my bag. The woman didn’t say a word in defence of my handbag. In the majority of cases our unsuspecting guinea pigs didn’t object to the simulated theft.

Later that afternoon, seeing us all together, the same woman approached us to ask what we’d been doing. When we explained the nature of the experiment to her, she was angry and embarrassed.

At the time I felt nothing but contempt. After all, she had let someone take my bag without saying a word. I imagined she was different from me. I imagined that I would never do the same if I was in her shoes. I of course would make up part of the minority that would keep my promise.

It’s shocking for most of us to read the results of Stanley Milgram’s experiments. A substantial proportion of his subjects chose to administer what they thought were fatal shocks to their fellow students, in experiments that were misrepresented as a study to measure the effects of punishment on learning. Many participants were left with the unbearable realisation that they would follow killing orders.

We were shown to be mistaken about the location of evil within the individual, and instead had to face the possibility that most of us were capable of following orders that demanded we inflict pain on others. We had to face that most of us could be obedient to the point of destruction.

The outcome of these experiments challenged our assumptions about evil, and the terrible after-effects for the subjects involved led to substantial increases in the ethical restriction of psychological research.

I’m now helping research students prepare their ethics applications for permission to perform psychological research. They are keen, bright and enthusiastic. There is so much they want to know. Like Milgram, they have burning questions stemming from their own histories and experience and they are determined to find answers to the questions that trouble them.

Unlike Stanley Milgram, they are not allowed to deceive their research subjects, and have to go through quite a complex process to prove to an ethics panel that their participants will come to no harm.

Debriefing, counselling and the right to withdraw from the research process at any time are repeatedly offered to their subjects.

We’ve come a long way from the unethical experiments of the past. We now understand that deception plays a key role in the pain suffered by research participants who are forced to discover their own potential for cruelty. When deception is involved in experimentation, the concept of participant consent becomes an illusion.

We find out things about ourselves that we don’t want to know, and our new knowledge gets clouded with the shame of being duped. But we should worry that Milgram’s findings, particularly that we all have the potential for extremely destructive obedience, could be lost in our concern for the pain of his research subjects.

But as I listened to their stories, so much of what was painful for them was the deception, humiliation and manipulation they suffered in the process. While all of them had struggled to assimilate the information about their own potential for violence, each had been lied to and each had wrestled alone with the painful realisation that they were not the people they had understood themselves to be.

The aims of the researchers in these and other manipulative experiments were noble. We have learned a lot about our capacity to hurt others in a context of coercion from outrageously unethical experiments. The desire to reveal the truth of the human potential for cruelty is a worthy one. Unfortunately, the researchers in these experiments were no different from their subjects. Of course they never are. This is something we are only beginning to understand.

By manipulating people for their own needs, their own careers and drives to understand, these psychologists also demonstrated their capacity for cruelty. They too were party to causing pain in the service of an ideal, however worthy.

They did in fact take part in experiments on the effects of punishment on learning, and we can see the legacy today. Those people who found out that they were capable of following orders to kill another human being still struggle with accommodating this uncomfortable self-knowledge because of the punishment that was part and parcel of their learning.

I believe that for most of us this struggle is a familiar one, and that’s why it’s so endlessly fascinating. We usually find out unpleasant information about ourselves under painful circumstances. The challenge is to hold on to what we’ve learnt after the pain goes away.

ABOUT THERAPY FOR NEWS JUNKIES: Why does the news make the news? Why do certain stories gain such traction? Therapy For News Junkies is a regular NM column which looks at why audiences react so vehemently to particular issues. Zoe Krupka is a psychotherapist who uses her knowledge about how we react as individuals to better understand collective responses to the events of the day.

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