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.


There’s an experiment in which people play ‘The Ultimatum Game’. The game’s absurdly simple, yet what it tells us about human nature has spawned volumes.

It goes like this:

  1. There are two people: they’ve never met before, and they’re politely told they’ll never meet (at least, not in the experiment) again.
  2. One of them is handed a sum of money: say £10.
  3. Both are informed that the game’s ‘default’ outcome is that they get to keep their share of the money at the end.
  4. This person with the money offers the second person – who may or may not be within their sight – some share of their loot: any share they choose…
  5. But there’s a catch.
  6. Both are told that if the second person is unhappy with the miserliness of the offered share, that second person can turn it down AND that in that event – i.e. a rejection – neither party gets to keep any money.

Now then.

What, as a ‘second person’, would people choose to do?

Classical economics tells us that, however miserly the offer, it should always be accepted. £1 is evidently better than nothing, after all, and classical economics takes it as a given that we all act rationally to maximise the loot in our hands.

But that’s not what happens here.

People, in real life, tend to reject the lower offers even though they know that it ‘costs’ them and that the possibility that doing so might ‘encourage a better offer next time’ is simply not on the table: recall, they understand they’ll never see the other person again.

We – human beings – reject those low offers because there’s a much older mechanism at work here: our sense of what is fair.  That sense (and someone has now demonstrated it’s so deep-seated that it’s older than actual humanity: chimps might have it too) causes us to want to ‘take down’ someone perceived to be treating us – or someone we care about – unfairly, even if the taking-down comes at a cost to ourselves.

In entirely separate news, in the run-up to the European Union Referendum two years ago most spokespeople for the government (which was pro-‘Remain-in’ at the time) spent a lot of time and energy stressing that leaving the European Union would damage the Banking industry, only to appear genuinely puzzled by what happened next…