The torturers are us

The findings of Stanley Milgram, the psychologist whose infamous 1960s studies demonstrated that average people would administer potentially fatal levels of electric shocks if told to by an authority figure, have apparently been confirmed. According to a new study reported in the San Jose Mercury, a psychologist at Santa Clara University in California is about to publish similar results in the journal American Psychologist.

The new experiments were carried out by Jerry M. Burger. Here are some details:

Burger's findings are published in a special section of the journal reflecting on Milgram's work 24 years after his death on Dec. 20, 1984. The haunting images of average people administering shocks have kept memories of Milgram's research alive for decades, even as recently as the Abu Ghraib scandal.

The subjects — recruited in ads in the Mercury News, Craigslist and fliers distributed in libraries and communities centers in Santa Clara, Cupertino and Sunnyvale — thought they were testing the effect of punishment on learning.

"They were average citizens, a typical cross-section of people that you'd see around every day,'' said Burger.

In the study, conducted two years ago, volunteers administered what they believed were increasingly powerful electric shocks to another person in a separate room. An "authority figure'' prodded the volunteer to shock another person, who was playing the role of "learner." Each time the learner gave an incorrect answer, the volunteer was urged to press a switch, seemingly increasing the electricity over time. They were told that the shocks were painful but not dangerous.

Burger designed his study to avoid several of the most controversial elements of Milgram's experiment. For instance, the "shocks'' were lower voltage. And participants were told at least three times that they could withdraw from the study at any time and still receive the $50 payment. In addition, a clinical psychologist interviewed volunteers to eliminate anyone who might be upset by the study procedure.

Like Milgram's study, Burger's shock generator machine was a fake. The cries of pain weren't real, either. Both the authority figure and the learner were actors — faculty members Brian Oliveira and Kenneth Courtney. (When Courtney failed to scream convincingly, a professional actor had to be hired; his voice was recorded.)

I don't think studies of this type should lead us to lament our innate cruelty, nor our innate desire to please authority--as I doubt that either quality is innate in the biological sense of the term. Rather, we should question the kind of society we live in and its values; and we should realize that even the president and vice-president of the United States can lead the nation in acquiescing to torture.

Photo: Stanley Milgram

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Anne Gilbert said…
I can't tell you how absolutely disgusted I am, that our government has allowed torture to take place under its auspices. I've been in this appalled state ever since those notorious Abu Ghraib pictures came out, and I understand there are worse ones. And like you, I don't think it is "innate" in human nature to be "aggressive" in this sense, any more than I think humans are "innately nice". Human nature, whatever that is, is a mixture of a broad variety of traits, and some come to the fore with circumstance and opportunity. We need to make sure that future administrations never resort to torture again. Ever.
Anne G
Michael Balter said…
Thanks for those heartfelt comments, Anne. The solution to torture is clearly wrapped up with the need to question authority and its claims, always--as well as being ever alert to the demons within.
Anonymous said…
I'm not too impressed with this watered-down version of the original Milgram study. The question Milgram wanted to answer was how ordinary people can go on to commit acts of extreme cruelty under official orders. If you listen to the recordings of the experiment, the "authority figures," are quite forceful and persistent. The participants who went far enough went from hearing screams of pain to silence as the shocks became more intense.

This Santa Clara experiment doesn't do anything for me. It doesn't examine how authority or duty affect decision making cross-culturally, and it doesn't do so realistically. Ethics guidelines are important, but don't settle for weak study because of them. Pick something else to research.
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