[Uni coursework is over so woo-hoo to more blogging!] Milgram’s experiment is one of the most popularly known psychology experiments. Basically, a subject was to administer electric shocks of increasing intensity to a student (who was really an actor taking fake shocks). The student began to scream in pain and eventually wished to cease the experiment. If the subject expressed doubts about continuing, an assistant was to chime in that they “must”. The initial estimate was that something like 25% of subjects would administer the maximum shock (450V). The results shocked Milgram: over 65% obeyed the authority of the assistant all the way to the end.
It seems hard to believe that most people would follow the authority of the experimental setup to the end (where the “student” appears unconscious or dead). Studies show that when people are told about the Milgram experiment results, most believe they would have acted differently. Of course, all this shows is how poor we are at self-assessment — at least for certain aspects of our behaviour. Whether we like it or not, Milgram’s results are very solid and were replicated about 6 months ago (more here).
Earlier this month, Sheril Kirshenbaum wrote Silence is the Enemy: a blog initiative with the idea of speaking out about rape to avoid the wall of silence. I think part of the problem is a tie-in with Milgram. If you live in a western democracy, it’s hard to believe most people will perform the 450V shock given certain circumstances. Similarly, it’s hard to believe that most men will perform the act of rape given certain circumstances. But again, the results seem solid. A new study from South Africa shows 1/4 men have committed rape. And for a western democracy (where law and order is indeed much better), over 50% of US Vietnam soldiers raped.
So what to do about it? Other than denying these aspects of our shared human nature at all costs, or shooting the messenger? The data that makes us uncomfortable is the same data that might save us. Most don’t rape and don’t give 450V shocks — because their social circumstances don’t bring out that part of their nature. It is much safer to acknowledge your violent potential since then you’re better placed to watch out for signs things are going wrong. And to help maintain social circumstances that curb violence in others.
I was walking home on Fri (10:30pm) and heard a yelp across the street: a man was pulling on a woman to snatch her bag. Once he threw her to the ground (only then did it become obvious that it was an attack as it was dark and a bit far away) I started running towards them to try help. Curiously, what was going through my mind was a blog post by Greg Laden where he describes an anthropologist who decided not to intervene in a gang-rape within the culture he was studying. The discussion that followed reinforced the absolute unacceptability of doing anything but helping immediately. Greg mentioned that he himself has been able to stop rapes in the field (he’s also an anthropologist) by using his wits, or perhaps sometimes even by letting the attacker know someone was watching. Now, I don’t think the discussion caused me to try help — but it made the social expectation of urgency (and the possibility of helping by any number of methods) fresh in my mind. This might have caused me to react slightly faster.
On a similar note: in Milgram’s experiment, when there was 1 dissenter in the room it did not help much. When there were several (creating a culture of refusing-to-administer-electric-shocks), almost all subjects dissented as well. It is up to us to create a culture where the expectation is as anti-Milgram’s-experiment (and as pro-assistance) as possible. It’s our only hope. The Chinese philosopher Mencius used this example to show human nature is good: if you’re walking on the street and a child is drowning in a river, your gut reaction is to run and help the child. That may be true, but Mencius hadn’t read Milgram. There are circumstances in which most of us probably wouldn’t save the child (example). So we shouldn’t underestimate social expectations as a factor that helps us reach the bar set by Mencius. This shit works. That’s why silence is the enemy.