The price of obedience


Would you – yes, you – torture someone, just because you’d been told to?

In the wake of the Holocaust and the trials that followed, in which the defence ‘I was only obeying orders’ gained notoriety, a young psychology student set about trying to find out.

Stanley Milgram was only 28 when he first devised the experiments on extreme obedience which now bear his name.  For the benefit of those unfamiliar with the set-up, the experiments took place in a laboratory into which the volunteer subject, together with a conspirator in the experiment, were led having been explained they were taking part in an investigation into learning and memory. The two drew lots to determine who would ‘teach’ and who would ‘learn’ – the lots had been fixed so that the volunteer would ‘teach’.

As the two were shown round the set-up and informed of what they were to do, and  the ‘learner’ attached to electrodes through which the ‘teacher’ would administer a mild shock in the event of an incorrect answer, the ‘learner’ would drop into the conversation the ‘fact’ that they had a heart condition. The ‘teacher’ would then be reassured that the experimenter, and the institution sponsoring the investigation, would ‘take full responsibility’. The experiment would then begin.

The ‘learner’, on being asked to memorise pairs of words, would occasionally make mistakes. When this happened the ‘teacher’ was to administer shocks. These began at a barely-perceptible 15 volts but rose by a further 15 volts with each incorrect answer. The voltages – in increments of 15 all the way up to 450 – were clearly displayed on the row of switches on the console before the ‘teacher’, along with helpful phrases such as ‘mild pain’, ‘severe pain’, ‘danger of death’ and ‘xxx’.

For comparison U.K. Mains voltage, at 230 volts, is plenty enough to put a life at risk.

Some of the results of these experiments are well-known, but they come as a shock to those who stumble upon them for the first time. Some people have tried to explain-away the apparent cruelty by postulating that the volunteers knew, or else twigged during the experiment, that the shocks were a sham and the ‘learner’ had been detailed to act the pain – to scream and bang the desk, and then fall silent.

Most people, once the initial shock clears, have the natural reaction ‘I would never obey cruel orders…’. But people do. They – we – do it in experiments and in real life, as yesterday’s grievous anniversary reminds us.

Why is this?

No-one else in the animal, plant or fungus kingdom (and please weigh-in to say if I am wrong here) inflicts deliberate, prolonged suffering on other individuals of their own species. There are parasites who appear to do this to their hosts, there are species who practice infanticide and even cannibalism in extreme survival situations, but nobody – nothing else on earth – tortures.

Since the sixties Milgram’s experiment has been replicated all over the world. Every demographic has had a go – women as well as men. The proportion of people who complied and took the process all the way to the lethal 450 volts, fell for the most part between 40% –  men from Australia – to 90% – men from the countries of Eastern Europe still recovering, at the time of the experiment, from their totalitarian states.

But one outlier stood stark: 16%.

There are theories which attempt to explain this away, but nevertheless: Women of Australia, I salute you.

New Year: new… tree

Happy New Year!

Herewith a tale of new beginnings:

Ages and ages ago we bought a living Christmas tree.

After it had done its time indoors we put it outside. But it quickly ran into trouble.

No, I don’t mean it attracted the wrath of the local posse of fruit trees –

“You’re not from round ‘ere are you?”

“No. Norway actually hey what’s with the strimmer..?”

Rather, unbeknown to us green buyers of such things, living Christmas trees come in two varieties:

  • Grown in a pot and sold ‘undisturbed’
  • Grown in the ground, harvested and shoved into a pot.

Ours, it seemed was of the latter, ‘disturbed’ kind. It had had its roots severed in order to fit in the pot and, by the following December, showed signs of struggling.

It looked too sad to use for decoration. But the local nature reserve have a special area dedicated to retired Christmas trees (they really do!) so we made up our minds to take it there and plant it out.

The middle of winter is the best time.

But each year midwinter came and went, then new year, then the February Cold Spell, and then spring would put an end to it.

Each summer the poor tree had looked more and more forlorn, its lower branches losing their needles and the baldness progressing upwards. The top, though, fought on and even produced cones – probably out of desperation.

However… <drum-roll please>

This year I had a better idea: a home for the tree which would be easier to reach than the Nature Reserve. This one wouldn’t require the drive across town: only a leisurely cycle ride to the ‘path to The Planets’ (upon which, if you scale up your cycling speed to the real solar system, you end up travelling faster than light, thus arriving home before you set out) – easy.

The mild weather this New Year has made all sorts of resolutions easier – well, less arduous at least – to carry out. There are more joggers on the river path than a normal first week of January would bring, for example. I have finally fixed the light in the garage. And having put it off for months, we’d got the bike trailer up and running.

We headed off with the tree in the trailer, its roots and earth wrapped in a carrier-bag.

The cycle-path is a former railway: flat, and easy to ride.

We carried on, past farmers’ bare fields towards a shock of red sunset under moody clouds, until we spotted mixed woodland: not just broadleaf. We didn’t want the tree standing out too much: someone might ‘manage’ the land there, and deem it out-of-place.

We turned and bounced down the muddy path, into the trees.

There’s a sound the wind makes in bare winter trees that has no word. It’s not a whisper or rustle, like leaves in summer. The proper term ‘Psithurism’ requires leaves (or at least needles).

It’s not a roar: it’s too gentle; not a rush because it has no beginning or end.

It just is.

We found a spot for the tree.

I have few regrets in life, but one of these is that I didn’t get this done earlier.

The soil wasn’t hard to dig. We’d brought water, and root-food. I remembered to disentangle some of the roots, so they’d know where to go.

I wonder if a tree can feel that it might soon be on the mend: that it now stands a chance.

I almost daren’t check up on it in time, in case I’d already left it too late.

But a practical friend pointed out it would need watering.