How a weirdo sees the world…
We often look back on history and say that this could only have happened because the people involved were ‘bad‘ or ‘evil‘. Things like Nazi Germany or the holocaust could not happen today. We have learned from our mistakes and people today are ‘better’ somehow, or maybe people in countries were those bad things happen are just cruel in their nature. Well, I am from Germany and I can honestly say that the German people I met were no more or less cruel than people I met elsewhere.
In 1963, the psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment following the trial of the German Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, who pledged that he was only following orders. Milgram wanted the answer the question “Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?” (Milgram, 1974).
All his participants were told that they were taking part in a learning experiment and that they would play the part of the ‘teacher’, while another participant (Milgram’s confederate) acted as the ‘learner’.
The ‘teacher’ and an ‘experimenter’ went into a room containing a shock generator with switches from 15V to 450V (the generator would not actually deliver shocks, that is only what the participants were told). In a different room, the ‘learner’ was strapped to a chair with electrodes. He had previously learned a list of word pair which the participant (the ‘teacher’) was to test him on. With every wrong answer, the ‘teacher’ was to administer an electric shock, each stronger than the last (15 volts – 450 volts). When the ‘teacher’ refused to administer the shock, the ‘experimenter’ urged him to go on with the following (prepares) statements: “please continue”, “the experiment requires you to continue”, “it is absolutely essential that you continue” and “you have no other choice but to continue”.
The results were shocking. Although many of the participants struggled, and often made signs of wanting to quit, 2/3 (65%) of the participants administered the (possibly deadly) 450V shock and ALL participants continued to the 300V.
What does that say about humanity? That we would all do horrible things, even kill somebody, if we are told/requested to do so? What would you have done? Sure, I would like say that I would have stopped, that I wouldn’t have harmed anyone, but how do I know? I can just hope that I will never find myself in a situation like this, so I never have to find out.
Mahatma Gandhi said
“Man’s nature is not essentially evil. Brute nature has been known to yield to the influence of love. You must never despair of human nature.”
Let’s just hope this is true.
Another example of people doing horrible things to each other without a reason is Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment.