The darker side of science | Obedience

Humans are sick and twisted creatures.

I’m sure it’s not a good idea to mildly insult the species to which every one of my readers belongs (…or do they?), but I’m sure you’ll agree after reading today’s post.

Throughout history we’ve undertaken horrific experiments in the name of science. Here are some of the more cringe-worthy experiments. Reader discretion is advised.

 

The power of compliance: Milgram’s experiment

Stanley Milgram wanted  to see exactly how far people would go when ordered by an authority figure to cause physical pain to another. So, in the 1960s, he rounded up some volunteers and told them that the study was about the effect of punishment on learning. The volunteers would be the ‘teachers’, and they would be testing a ‘learner’ (actually an accomplice of Milgram’s) on his memory of word pairs. Every time the learner made a mistake, the experimenter would tell the teachers to administer an electric shock, and to increase the intensity of the shock every time. I guess the fact that the learner was sitting in an electric chair with a maximum capability of 450 volt shocks (enough to leave you completely fried and/or dead) didn’t ring any alarm bells, seeing as the experiment took place at the highly regarded Yale University.

The learner gave mostly incorrect answers on purpose, and was ‘shocked’ accordingly by the teacher (it is important to note at this point that the learner was not actually shocked, but he managed to convince the teachers that he was. Acting).

The learner would eventually scream and writhe in pain, plead with the teacher to stop, bang on the wall demanding release and even tell the teacher of a heart condition. Many teachers would become confused throughout the experiment, and ask the experimenter what to do. He would always answer with one of the following lines;

“The experiment requires that you continue,”

“It is absolutely essential that you continue,”

“You have no other choice, you must go on,”

These were often met with agitation, distraught and anger towards the experimenter. Despite this, and the learner’s perfectly audible and agonised cries, the teachers continued to press the button; sometimes laughing hysterically as they did so. At 300 volts, the learner would fall into an eerie silence, feigning death. Disturbingly, this resulted in an almost 100% compliance in continuing to deliver shocks up to 450 volts.

Of the 40 voluntary teachers, 26 of them delivered the maximum shock of 450 volts, and 14 of them stopped before reaching the highest levels. This is interesting, because Milgram had initially thought that only approximately 3% of people would deliver the maximum shock, when in actuality the study suggested that 65% of us would. Scary.

Many of the teachers, after being told the nature of the experiment, claimed that they were traumatised for life after discovering that they were capable of such atrocious behaviour. The experiment revealed a dark yet principle aspect of human nature – that a lot of us would be capable of of killing someone under the obedience of authority. Yeah, I don’t blame them for being traumatised.

To be fair, Milgram did have a scientific reason for the experiment. He conducted it to see if the killings and atrocities committed by Germans during WWII were down to genuine malice, or were attributed to obedience to authority figures. But still. The deceptive and cruel nature of the experiment was just plain rude.

 

It gets worse: the puppy experiment 😦

If the above experiment didn’t generate any malcontent towards the researcher, this next one certainly will.

So, Milgram’s experiment reverberated widely throughout the scientific community and was met with a lot of feedback. One of the most prominent thoughts regarding the legitimacy of the experiment is that the teachers may have played along with the experiment as they were aware that the learner was faking it. So two (bad word) scientists, Charles Sheridan and Richard King, decided to repeat Milgram’s experiment. But instead of using an actor, they decided to use an actual victim – one that really would be shocked. And because science forbids the use of humans in these types of things, they decided to use a puppy instead. Total BS, I know.

Like Milgram, Sheridan and King lied about the nature of the experiment, telling volunteers that the puppy was being trained to distinguish between flickering and steady light. And like Milgram’s experiment, the volunteers were told to shock the puppy if it failed. Unlike Milgram’s experiment, the puppy really was getting shocked.

**graphic text follows

As the experiment progressed, the voltage intensity increased causing the puppy visible distressed. It barked wildly, jumped around frantically and howled with pain. These were met with similar reactions from the volunteers, who hyperventilated, cried, and tried to gesture to the puppy in an attempt to prevent its failure. Despite this, 20 of the 26 volunteers pushed the shock button right up to the maximum intensity. This makes me very sad.

The experiment strongly suggested that:

a) the volunteers from Milgram’s experiment were not aware of any acting on the learner’s part,

b) it really is in human nature to comply with authority to the point of causing extreme harm to another being, whether human or animal,

c) Sheridan and King are idiots and if people could not test these types of things on animals in the future, that would be great. kthxbai.

Interestingly, all 13 of the women who participated in the study obeyed the researcher to the very end. The 6 volunteers who refused to go on to the maximum shock level were all men. Go figure.


 

Featured image depicts a shock generator, similar to that which would have been used in Milgram’s experiment. It’s sourced from https://thesituationist.files.wordpress.com/2011/09/shock-generator-buttons.jpg.

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