They twist their hands. They sweat, they grit their teeth. They claw their hair, the battle in their minds playing out on their agonised faces…
And those are just the perpetrators.
And the rest of us – those in the field and those whose connection extends no further than being of the same species – have ever since then been struggling to explain why, nevertheless, in so many cases they press on.
Where does empathy go, or what is it that overpowers it, in Milgram’s experiments?
Milgram himself was the first to be shocked by the outcomes, and the first to put forward an explanation. He proposed that our mind – the set-up of our thought processes – passes through something of a phase change, going from an ‘Autonomous’ state, in which we act entirely of our own freewill, to an ‘Agentic’ state, in which admonitions such as ‘I/the institution take full responsibility…’ (a typical experimenter reply when pressed about the consequences of any harm that might be done) are taken literally. It’s as if some part – not all – of the volunteer subjects’ mind is thinking ‘that pain I can hear isn’t my doing: it’s the experimentor’s’.
The obedience-over-empathy effect is strongest if the experimenter is nearby: hearing instructions via a phone link rather than from someone physically present reduced average compliance from over 65% to under 20%. It’s also stronger if the ‘victim’ can’t be seen. We’re a social species after all and we don’t want to let down (on the one hand) or harm (on the other) those who are near us.
But there’s more.
Dressing the experimenter in casual clothes rather than the classic white lab-coat, and switching the experiment’s location from prestigious Yale to a nondescript building on the edge of town, both had the effect of reducing compliance for an otherwise identical experimental set-up.
Similarly, the sexes of ‘teacher’ and ‘learner’ made a difference: men were far less willing to inflict pain upon women. This may be cultural, or it may be older: perhaps our higher-pitched screams, nearer to humankind’s ‘emergency signal frequency’ of a baby’s wail, are simply more effective at their job.
Some spoilsport has even suggested that this explains the Australian result: the women in that study were ‘teaching’ other women, on instructions from a male experimenter. Yes lads, it’s true: we’ll gang up on you if we have to, simply to survive.
What the effect of the clothes and buildings appear to show, though, is that our willingness to inflict pain on others is, in the life of human beings as a species, a fairly modern thing. And that what brought it to the fore was the hierarchical state in which we all live now: we have simply become accustomed to putting our minds into Neutral gear and obeying orders, especially from those who are nearby, no matter the consequences to those who are out of sight.
In the words of laboratory assistant Charity, in the sequel to ‘The Price of Time’ when asked “What would you do?”:
“I’d do what I was paid to do.”