Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Shock absorber

The Neko Milgram experiment, in which the majority of subjects proved willing to apply massive, even fatal jolts to confederates as long as they had moral permission, has disturbed and depressed many people over the years. The results, however, may have been misinterpreted.

Gina Perry, for her book, Behind the Shock Machine, traced as many participants in the Milgram experiment as she could, and re-examined the notes of the experiment. Milgram claimed that seventy-five percent of the participants believed in the reality of the experiment, but Perry puts the number at about half. The change makes a big difference in the results. The people who didn't buy that they were actually shocking people were far more willing to increase the intensity of the shocks. They wanted to know how far the experimenters would go in the ruse, while the experimenters were wondering the same thing about them. Those that believed that they were shocking people were much more likely to keep the shocks down low. While Perry still thinks about a third of the people would crank up the shocks even if they believed, that's a big drop in overall percentage.

This actually stands to reason. If I were a subject in the experiment, my thinking would go thus: The researcher is legally responsible for whatever goes on here. Obviously, he'll be in deep shit if someone he's experimenting on dies. He'd be stupid to let me harm or kill that person. Ergo, if he's telling me to ignore that person's cries for mercy, something else must be going on here.

Not sure what I'd do after I reached that conclusion.

Now does that mean that people are good? Not necessarily. In truth "Are people good?" seems to me to be a uselessly vague question. But it's nice to know there aren't quite that many Jack-Lint-in-Brazil types.


susan said...

Considering the fact I was depressed about this news years ago I'm glad you discovered Gina Perry's book. It's interesting to learn that half the people didn't believe the premise from the beginning and probably some had thoughts much like the reasoning you describe. You're right that the question 'Are people bad or good?' is too vague but it's certainly true there's a danger in stripping people of their humanity in the name of scientific research.

Ben said...

That's definitely a danger. It's also quite possible for the researcher to be misinformed through wanting to be proven right in one thing or another.