In the 1970s, Yale social psychology professor Stanley Milgram performed an experiment purportedly demonstrating humans’ capacity for cruelty. His renowned research involved the application of electric shocks to subjects who incorrectly responded to a series of questions. Remarkably, when coaxed on by a lab technician, 65 percent of volunteer participants from all walks of life administered the full range of shocks up to 450 volts, even after being told that such wattage could be lethal.
Milgram’s research appeared to confirm the horrible ubiquity of sadism. His dark findings were seemingly reinforced by the nearly simultaneous trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, a “banal” man, in the haunting words of historian Hannah Arendt, who claimed to have merely followed orders. Indeed, if random volunteers in an innocuous setting would readily electrocute strangers pleading for mercy—in reality actors sitting behind a partition—then humans’ vicious impulses must know no bounds.
Only, Milgram’s findings were far more complex. He actually performed dozens of experiments on the theme of obedience, understood in this case as the propensity to inflict pain at the behest of an authority figure. What he found was far more interesting than what’s often recognized. By mixing up the staged scenarios, outcomes changed, oftentimes dramatically. For example, putting together in the same room the volunteer participants administering the electric shocks and the subjects receiving them caused obedience levels to fall significantly. Having the volunteers hold down the subjects’ hands on a metal plate supposedly delivering the painful jolts drove down compliance even more. And being told by lab technicians that they had no choice but to continue the experiment resulted in volunteers’ categorical refusal to do so. In other words, Milgram’s research showed that obedience isn’t blind whatsoever.
Milgram’s research did produce other disturbing results, however. Even after being told that the experiment was staged, the volunteer participants expressed pride in having taken part in it. This satisfaction stemmed from a sense of commitment to scientific inquiry, regardless of the psychological trauma that it inflicted. The same altruism explained the participants’ brutality. That is, they weren’t inflicting (apparent) pain because they had to, but rather because they felt they ought to. They were nobly motivated. Such was their commitment to the quest for knowledge that, according to Alex Haslam, professor of psychology at the University of Exeter, the volunteers might even have willingly administered shocks to themselves, not just others.
Milgram’s experiments, then, actually reveal altruism’s enormous potential for good and for ill. It’s a chilling lesson bringing to mind the dictum of Hell being paved with good intentions. In that vein, it may well be that Eichmann was not a brutal thug as much as an all-too-human figure tragically given the chance to do “good” as he understood it, or rid the world of Jews.
The story of Milgram’s experiments, which is wonderfully told on NPR’s Radiolab, is particularly germane to Americans, who are endowed with a messianic sense of purpose. Convinced of the nobility of our mission, we often seek to remake the world in our image, oftentimes with disastrous consequences. From bringing civilization to the savage frontier Indians to delivering freedom to benighted Iraqis, or what George W. Bush called God’s “gift” to humanity, our record is spotty at best.
Graham Greene wonderfully captured the dangers of our righteousness in The Quiet American. As postwar France wilts under the weight of its colonial patrimony in Vietnam, America slowly seeks to fill the breach, unbowed by the mounting carnage that results. Alden Pyle, Greene’s American protagonist, embodies the steely determination. When a bomb decimates a Saigon street, he dryly observes: “What happened in the Square today makes me sick. But in the long run I’m gonna save lives.”
Pyle’s misguided and ruinous altruism is shared by Milgram’s volunteers undaunted by the shrieks of pain coming from the apparently electrocuted subjects. The same righteousness also may explain Eichmann’s behavior. “That’s the way it is with moral certainty,” writes author Cullen Murphy in the New York Times. “It sweeps objections aside and makes anything permissible if pursued with an appeal to higher justification. That higher justification does not need to be God, though God remains serviceable. The higher justification can also be the forces of history. It can be rationalism and science. It can be some assertion of the good. It can be national security.”
Given the perils of blind conviction, as the United States retrenches after a period of catastrophic military muscle flexing around the world, we may be wise to harbor a little more doubt and a little less certitude about our perceived global responsibilities. The cries from the other side of the partition have gotten awfully loud, after all.