Friday, April 8, 2011

Why Good People Make Dangerous Choices (Pondering Pearl and Lydia Schatz) Part IV: The Milgram Experiment and the Pressure to Commit Evil for the Common Good

The events surrounding the death of Lydia Schatz leave most people wondering why and how good people like Kevin and Elizabeth Schatz could lose so much perspective that they could discipline their daughters to the point of lethal harm.  They trusted the teachings of Michael Pearl, but mere trust alone cannot account for the tragic events.  What other factors contributed to the blind obedience that they showed to the teachings of Pearl?  Social psychology has wisdom to offer.  As Philip Zimbardo phrased it, how many people would "electrocute someone if Hitler asked them to do it?"

Stanley Milgram graduated from Harvard with his PhD in Social Psychology in 1960, and he went to work at Yale. Pondering the Eichmann Trial which commenced in 1961 and his own Jewish heritage, Milgram set out to investigate the reasons why and how so many reasonable people participated with the Nazis.

The Asch Experiments in the early '50s demonstrated that one third of individuals were willing to reevaluate their perceptions in order to defer to the consensus of a group, but Milgram wanted to conduct a study that was was more relevant to human situations. Milgram rejected the idea of using college students and advertised for subjects that represented regular people from all walks of life. (College students want good grades and can sometimes yield different results than those from the general population.) He settled on 40 candidates [Big edit! 9Apr11: for the very first leg of the trial.  The entire study included 1000 subjects wherein variations in this original group were performed.  It was one of the most extensively studied trials in psychology, actually.]

The test subjects were told that they were going to participate in the study of the effects of punishment on learning and memory. The subjects were all assigned the title of “teacher,” and they were directed to ask questions of the other study participant who was hidden from his view, but he could hear the responses of this participant who was given the title of “learner.” The “teacher” was seated in front of a panel of electrical switches ranging in intensity from 15 to 450 volts. 

Whenever the “learner” answered incorrectly, the “teacher” was instructed to deliver a shock, and each subsequent shock would be slightly higher in intensity. The panel also indicated that at a certain voltage, the charges were considered dangerous and were marked accordingly. What the “teacher” did not know was that the “learner” and the “experimenter” who was administering the test were confederates, and they were really testing his/her level of obedience. The responses of the confederate “learner” were planned and pre-recorded.

The “teacher” (the real subject in the study) begins to deliver shocks to the “learner” who eventually begins to cry out in pain and begs to stop the experiment, even banging on the wall and claiming to have a heart condition at a certain voltage level. Many subjects would progress with the charges until the learner begs to stop, asking if someone could or has checked on their well being. Most people continued after they were told that they were not responsible for the outcome. The “experimenter” was also instructed to pressure the “teacher” to continue. At a certain voltage set point, the “learner” becomes suddenly silent (they are unconscious or dead). If the subject, the “teacher,” continued to protest after four encouragements to continue, the study was halted. Otherwise, the “teacher” was required to continue until he had delivered the 450 volt shock three successive times. After performing some studies at the university, he also moved the testing off site to a less impressive looking building out of concern that the setting might have affected the data (finding that these statistics did not show any statistically significant differences from the data obtained at the Yale campus).

Prior to conducting the study, Milgram polled senior students and other colleagues about the results they would anticipate, and the opinions were all quite similar: they predicted only a 0 – 3% rate of compliance.

The actual findings in the first group within the study were far more disturbing: 65% of subjects completed the full course (26 out of 40), continuing up through the full 450 volts, though many of them protested and bargained to be released from the study.

Milgram's study confirmed the findings of the Asch Experiments, noting that social pressure had a potent effect on the responses of individuals, and that they were willing to surrender their better judgment to a system or a group as a system. It also demonstrated that people feel a diminished sense of responsibility if they comply with an authority or a system, seeing themselves as a passive instrument or tool being used as opposed to viewing themselves as a fully culpable moral agent.

Would most reasonable people electrocute someone if they believe they are doing so for a good cause? Apparently 2/3 of regular, everyday people will. Only about 10% of people will get up and leave when their conscience gives them pause. The findings of similar studies in the US offer the same general findings.

In the Lucifer Effect, Philip Zimbardo asks whether we have any real-life examples of these findings regarding blind obedience. He offers the tragedy of Jonestown, Guyana as evidence of the profound power of the pressure and the deception that required followers to commit “revolutionary” acts of suicide and mothers mothers to poison their own little ones.

I would like to offer the example of the obedience of the Schatz family as an example of this same process that seduces good, faithful, loving, and dutiful people into following a leader and a system with blind obedience to the point of causing harm. I believe that when a person is engulfed in a culture that accepts, promotes, and even demands in some cases that participants follow the Pearls, they find themselves embracing an illusion that the system will protect them. The Schatz Family discovered that this was not the case. Somehow, the authoritarian nature of Pearl's system makes the system and Pearl himself seem ultimately responsible, likely because the individual has merged with the group identity while losing aspects of their own. They may have to merge with a group in order to survive, and obedience may be required of them. Obedience becomes more important than personal responsibility, and the participant believes that their good intent and their obedience will be credited to them as righteousness somehow. But it is only an illusion.

As an adjunct to last week's show, listen to a discussion of Milgram and More on Jocelyn Andersen's Blog Talk Radio on Saturday April 9, 2011 as it relates to the Schatz Family.

Click here to read the entire series on the archive.

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