The price of obedience II

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.”

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.


You’re allowed to call me daft on 31/12/2019


I really don’t have to do this.

But the temptation is just too great, because in the past I’ve been sure about…

  • The 2008 crash. I saw it coming in 2007, and mentioned it to my boss just as work broke up for the holidays. I don’t work there any more.
  • The Brexit vote. Though I admit this was only 2 days in advance of the referendum, and came as a result of Prime Minister Cameron’s abysmal performance on Breakfast TV (which ruined my bacon-&-eggs). He made Nigel Farage, sitting opposite him on the sofa, appear friendly and coherent. No, he really did.

And the biggie…

  • The Trump Presidency. in the run-up to New Year’s 2015-16 I read an article ‘The Politics of Resentment’ which – do you ever get this feeling? – just ‘rang true’. I even wrote a warning story – ‘Gift’ – about the consequences, ten years down the line, for a New World country that turns its back on immigrants. ‘Gift’, the word, is German for ‘poison’…


All right so enough of the boasting. Here’s the bit where I stop looking so damn clever:

The U.K.

My boring Brexit guess is that we’ll stagger from temporary ‘fix’ to temporary ‘fix’, because no-one will dare to finish the job – in or out – for fear of alienating all the people who voted for (or just plain expected) something completely different. In other words, May’s ‘deal’ will get its vote and then no-one’ll know what to do about the ‘temporary’ bits.

This is likely to result in the mother of all recessions, as no-one dare buy anything major for fear of losing their job. But that may soon pass: I’ve been one of the Great British Public for long enough to know that enough of us get ‘thrift fatigue’ after a while: we’ll start buying again. We won’t have much actual money, but no-one except a few economics wonks will care.

Something ‘non-linear’ will happen to the student loan book.

A massive conglomerate that no-one except afficionados of the back pages of Private Eye has ever heard of will go bust (actually, that might be the student loan book!)

Hinkley C nuclear power station won’t get built, but it won’t not get built either. A bit like Brexit.

The (rest of the) E.U.

A country that no-one suspects, or has even much thought about, will have a financial crisis of the Greek or Italian kind. The E.C.B. will step-in with the usual usurious kiss-of-death to that country’s social economy. One of these days, but possibly not in 2019, it’ll dawn on the E.C.B. that this is how fascism starts.

The U.S.A.

So: what about events across the Pond?

The President will be taken from office, but not by hardworking Mr Mueller and his enquiry, or by the newly-enthused Democrats in the House.


That’s the guy who’ll come for the President. And it might not even be in 2019…

Meanwhile the individual states (California, Texas etc) and cities will do their level best to reduce Carbon emissions, raise quality of life, and generally perform all the functions people pay a central government to do.


Someone will fry eggs on the pavement. Again.


Everyone will continue to be terrified that China will do something ‘on the world stage’, but that’s not China’s style. It might, however, step-up its buying of all sorts of assets that would previously have attracted…


“воруют” _Nikolai Mikhailovich Karamzin, Historian

This single Russian word means “they’re thieving” and he meant, not from countries abroad, but from each other.


Countries aren’t people. Leaders aren’t people either, or at least they cease to act like real people once upon the World Stage. People everywhere – not leaders – are the ones who keep the whole thing going. The ones who repair the infrastructure, nurse the ill and injured back to health, keep the paperwork up-to-date so mistakes can be put right, clean up the mess, change to more sustainable ways when chance allows, grow the food, put up the fight against injustice, and tell the stories for the next generation.

None of this will stop in 2019.

We just need to do the work faster than our present ‘leaders’ undo it.

If this last should fail to happen, then being called daft next New Year’s Eve will be the least of my worries…

War and Peace


You’re out of luck. The raid that your Squadron Leader said would be a walk in the park has gone wrong: they were waiting for you and you’ve been shot down. You’re injured – no idea, as yet, how badly. And they’ve found you before you could get to shelter.

You’re carted off to some unknown place in the dark by men whose language you don’t understand but about whom you’ve heard… well, you’d rather not think about it.

The Enemy.

You’re thousands of miles from home.

After a preliminary roughing-up, you find yourself alone in a cell. Nothing happens, for what seems like hours.

The cell door opens. You feel a sick lurch.

You’ve already given your name, rank and number when you first got here.

What now?

But nobody’s shouting at you and, apart from the guards at the door who haven’t moved from their posts, there’s only one of him.

“Hi. My name’s Hans.”

He gestures to imply you needn’t bother rising from your bunk. He pulls up a chair. It occurs on you, as he recounts the events of the previous night and how your people were caught out, that he doesn’t even have that harsh accent. He sounds just like you.

You gather, as he carries on talking, that they must’ve known all about the raid days, maybe weeks, in advance. Hell, about the entire history of the Squadron, sounds like. You don’t know it, but you’re nodding agreement with some of the stuff he’s saying.

He asks when you last ate: you realise how hungry you’ve gotten.

We don’t get much in the way of decent food round here, but I’ll see what we can rustle up…

You find yourself joking about your food – about the guys responsible for getting it to you. The rats. The QM who’s always on the make. Yeah, same here.

He leaves, returning later with food, even a few magazines. Film stars. You haven’t been to the movies in months. You get nostalgic. He asks about your favourite films. Their lads, he tells you, stencil the Divas on their planes: how about you..? You banter a little, about the planes. He tells you there’s a movie theatre here at the camp, and as soon as the medic’s treated that burn…

You find yourself talking, over the food. You’ve been careful: not given anything away. No numbers, no strategies, no tactics…

Or have you?

His name was Hans Joachim Scharff. A successful salesman in civilian life, he became one of the Luftwaffe’s top interrogators: the very antithesis of the harsh, ‘we have ways of making you talk’ trope of war films.

On the other side of the world, at roughly the same time, former missionary Marine Major Sherwood Ford Moran, an American Japanophile who spoke the language perfectly, was working the same magic on captured Japanese soldiers following failed raids on Pacific islands.

They’d sit in the shade on folding wooden chairs not far away from the immediate battlefield, and just talk – about places, about food.  The captives were often grateful for someone who spoke their language: who understood them and knew the rhythm of their lives back home. It would almost be rude not to talk…

It got so sometimes they’d even seek him out, for a chat.

Because whether in the pub just down the road, or in mortal peril halfway round the world, everybody loves to witter about themselves, really.

Which brings me to my turn, and Kate in Portsmouth.

I was not a captured soldier in dread of what might happen next, and of course my job was to give information: not withhold it.

But shock has an unexpected effect on the mind and on your ability to deal with direct questions. You blank out. The people needing the facts are working against obstacles, but these obstacles are not of your deliberate making: they lurk in the hidden parts of the mind, with our species’ other survival instincts.

I don’t remember the room. I couldn’t recall her face for the life of me – not even hair colour – but I do remember that it was she who eased me in to the talking and that all else, bar the street incident, left my mind.

Someone brought me a coffee. I remember wondering how they knew I took sugar.

We ran through it, all of it, in the present tense. The only interruptions would come if I stopped for lack of inspiration. They generally took the form “and what happens now?”

I don’t recall giving any details about appearances at this stage: only actions. I’m poor at remembering appearances.

Or so I thought.

We came to the end of my run-through of the incident: to my arrival at Geordie-Man’s house.

I thought that was that – I’d failed almost completely to give any useful details…

Then we went back and ran through it all again: but different this time.

“He’s coming towards you. Can you hear his footsteps?”

“What’s his hair like?

“What sort of clothes is he wearing?”

And back I was, in Burnaby Road…

MRI scans have since that time shown that the brain activity of someone imagining a situation is all but indistinguishable from that of the same person perceiving it in real life. This, it’s my guess, is how the true victims – those less lucky than I was that night – find their interviews so traumatic. I can only hope that, like ‘therapy’ is supposed to do, it helps get some of the awfulness out of their minds.

My interview, as mentioned before, took a whole three hours. It didn’t feel like that. It didn’t feel like any time at all. I became kind-of suspended: taken out of the normal flow of time, re-playing bits of reality like an eighties film fan would re-play action highlights of a video.

And that is how it’s done: the technique now accepted as ‘best practice’ in police stations throughout the U.K. for victims, witnesses and suspects alike. Kate – who’d ‘been on a course’ recall – must have been one of the earliest pioneers.

Its name is PEACE:

Prepare – Engage/Explain – Account, Clarify & Challenge – Close – Evaluate

There’s a free course here, for the curious.

And for the skeptics – of whom I admit I was once one – I give you experts from Liverpool who’ve demonstrated how well this kind of interviewing works, even on hardened criminals and terrorists.

I leave you with two quotes from top interrogators:

“The best (interviews) suspended moral judgment and conveyed genuine curiosity.”

“Rapport is the closest thing interrogators have to a truth serum.”



In the light of an interesting recent find, I’m stepping aside from our history of interviewing techniques for a moment, to ponder their content instead.

How good can our memory for a face – a voice, a person – really get, even when poorly seen like in my picture here? And are some faces more memorable, on some kind of absolute scale, than others? What if we were witness to a crime..?

No-one should stand on the right. But below me, and blocking the way to walk down the rush-hour escalator, is a bunch of rowdy Italian lads with whom I’ve no desire to argue. It’s 1980s London and I’m on my way to work.

So I stand, on the right.

Till someone kicks me in the back.

I turn around to see a pin-stripe suit topped by a pale, contorted face. I can’t work out how old he is. The language shocks: I’ve never heard anyone in a pin-stripe swear before. I forget, today, the words of my mild protestation – survival instinct hands me uncharacteristic restraint – but I remember the kick in the chest – the loss of breath. I recall wondering if the Italian lads know CPR. But when I turn to step off the escalator, they’ve gone. A sturdy, white-haired gent in tweeds – my guess is a retired Colonel – addresses a point just beyond my right shoulder:

“I say! That’s no way to treat a young lady!”

The pin-stripe scuttles off like a rat.

I think – I hope – that I thanked the gent in tweeds. I hope he read the thoughts on my face as for the first time in my life 21-year-old feminist rebel me – the only woman engineer in my workplace – realised that men of the Forces could also be kind. There’d been a string of anti-war protests of late, and I’d been on every one.

Fast forward a year, and a train carriage rushing through deepest Hampshire. A man and a young woman in the heavy, sprung seats across the way from me are arguing, and it’s getting ugly. They’re not a couple: they’re strangers. She’s sitting in the draught from the window he’s just opened.

I hate an argument, and this one’s so easy to resolve. I lean over and suggest they swap seats, putting him in the fresh air and keeping her in the warm. She rises to move, but he lets fly at me. Survival instinct cuts in again: I recall the words and voice – the pinstripe, even.

“That bloke kicked me on an escalator on the tube last year. He’s a ruddy menace. I’ll find the guard.”

I wonder how many other women the pin-stripe’s picked on, over the years. Did he get worse? Did he get caught?

Another city, another year: Portsmouth, in fact, and at least two years on. It’s hot, it’s dark and I’m among friends in the student dive, all jumping to George Melly’s lively jazz. I’m dancing on a table. As you do. Someone tugs at my sleeve – well yes, I suppose I shouldn’t really do this: 8 stone might be too much for a Students’ Union table. I glance down to gauge my leap. The sleeve-tugger isn’t one of our crowd. She’s saying something, with difficulty over the loud music:

“I’ve seen you before. You were on that train: you stopped that argument…”

Two years. A flash of a face in the dark. I stared, gobsmacked.

To be fair, she might have been one of those rare people with the gift of super-recognition. But other strangers have remembered me, from other glimpses and other incidents. It’s just this particular one struck me as the most extreme.

And so back to that recent piece of research: how many other people, I wonder, do folk remember?

What it can’t yet explain, though, is this: why always me?