What the Milgram Experiment says about Human Evil

by Aaron on December 16, 2011

When one human attempts to force another human into doing something that they don’t want to do against their will and against their interest, it’s considered violence.


There are forms of violence which show no marks, which leave no trace, and – most disturbingly – force the victim into thinking that they agreed to it.


Whenever someone says something like “I really don’t want to argue with you” and they mean “This is already decided and I want you to shut up”, they’re doing that. When someone makes an intern stay in till 3 AM working on a report, they’re doing that. When someone politely shoehorns someone into doing something they don’t want to do, they’re doing that.


Nurse Ratched is really polite, and she’s also totally evil. She calmly emasculates and coerces the characters in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, and she does it with a smile.


Submission To Authority


Polite hostility often flows from the top of a hierarchy down. Why do people put up with it?


Society expects you to put up with shit form people above you, and to dump it on people below you. So long as the shit flows down the latter, everyone looks the other way.


The Milgram Experiment showed that most people are willing to deliver shocks of electricity to a screaming patient past what’s labeled to be a lethal voltage, so long as an actor in a lab coat tells them to. In the experiment, the patient was actually an actor, and he wasn’t actually being harmed.


When someone did a replication where puppies were (actually) electrocuted instead, compliance increased. Women would be openly weeping, while continuing to electrocute puppies.


This is a scene that if it happened in fiction would need to be proceeded by some sort of implied intense psychological manipulation and psyche breaking. Turns out that all you need is a lab coat, and an expectation to obey. (Fewer people comply in the Milgram experiment when you conduct it in a shady neighborhood, compared to Yale).


How it Works


What the hell happened? According to Wikipedia…


It was pretty straightforward. Participants were told that they were participating in an experiment studying the effect of punishment on learning. An experimenter (actually an actor) in a lab coat would tell them when to shock a learner (who the participants thought was another participant, but who was actually an actor). They had a dial to increase the voltage, and at the high end it gave warnings like “DANGER: LETHAL”.


”You won’t be held responsible”

Everyone became unsure if they wanted to continue. The guy in a lab coat would tell them that they would not be held responsible. This was normally enough to get people to continue.


Most participants abdicate their moral responsibility as soon as someone told them they would not be held responsible.


Manufactured Inevitability

Even after that, some people would still want to stop the experiment. Every time they said so, the guy in a lab coat would tell them, in order:


  1. Please continue
  2. The experiment requires that you continue
  3. It is absolutely essential that you continue
  4. You have no other choice, you must continue


Basically, 66% of people will blindly obey authority, even if it involves torture. They don’t take responsibility for their actions, and they buy into people telling them that that’s just the way things are.



What does this have to do with politeness again?


Polite hostility lets people who seem powerful do terrible things to everything else. Most people will go along with what they’re told is acceptable.


The mechanism of polite hostility is to force people into doing things by beating them over the head with societal expectations. These expectations aren’t necessarily endorsed by the victim, but the Milgram experiment shows that most people will abdicate responsibility, will abdicate their ability to make choices and decide for themselves what’s right and what’s wrong, so long as they think they have to.


Politeness has covered up some really nasty stuff in the past. “Comfort Woman” referred to women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during WWII.


Defiance is a Virtue

But there’s the other 33%, right? The third of people who will refuse to torture just because a guy in a lab coat tells them to. That’s nice. Like, at least they didn’t torture people or anything.


None of them tried to stop the experiment.


None of them tried to stop other people from torturing, or stood up to the experimenter and told them to stop torturing people, they just didn’t do it themselves.


That is why rebellion is rare.


Among the few with the courage to opt-out and not do evil, even fewer have the strength to try and stop it.


In a world where people will electrocute puppies because a guy in a lab coat told them to, defiance is a virtue. In this world, rebellion is heroism.


There is hope. In versions of the experiment where the participants see other people refuse, people overwhelmingly refuse.


If you’re strong enough, please call people out on their shit. You can do it politely, politeness isn’t bad in and of itself, but you shouldn’t remain silent.


Many forms of authority try to strip people from their judgment and morality, and many people allow it to happen.


You don’t have to give into expectations that you don’t endorse. You don’t need to listen to the man in the lab coat.


I’m not going to say that giving into polite hostility is the same as electrocuting puppies or going on a massive rape campaign, but I am going to say that the mental process which leads to submission also enables those.


So please do me a favor.


The next time you start to follow along with what someone with higher status tells you to do, ask yourself:


Is it something you want to do?

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Paulo Roberto December 17, 2011 at 12:14 am

Really nice text.


Sebastian Marshall December 23, 2011 at 2:43 pm

Awesome post here.


Grumpy Parent December 27, 2011 at 6:09 pm

“When one human attempts to force another human into doing something that they don’t want to do against their will…”

Hmm. I thought that was the definition of being a parent of a child under the age of 18.


Aaron December 28, 2011 at 2:11 am

Good point, changed that sentence a bit.

There was originally some more stuff in the essay that emphasized keeping other people’s interests in mind.


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