Thursday, January 04, 2007

An Interesting Juxtaposition

This week ABC's 20/20 aired a recent replication of psychologist Stanley Milgram's famous experiments, first conducted about 45 years ago, on obedience to authority.

In the experiment, a subject is told that s/he is part of a study on the effect of punishment on memory. S/he is paid a small cash stipend, and advised that s/he can leave the study at any time and keep the money. Then s/he is given the task of teaching an unseen but audible second subject (in reality, an actor) in another room a series of word pairs. If the learner of the pair misses a question, the teacher is instructed, by a white-coated researcher, to administer an electric shock -- using a dummy machine. As the test progresses, the teacher is instructed to increase the voltage of the shocks when the learner makes a mistake.

Both 45 years ago and today most subjects, upon instruction by the white-coated authority figure, "shocked" the individual in the other room without question, even when the voltages they thought they were administering reached the "danger" level on the dummy machine dial; even when the learner screamed and begged the teacher to stop. Only one third of the subjects wound up refusing to participate further. After the test, many subjects seemed to find it difficult to explain why they had continued to administer shocks even when the other person sounded as if they were in physical distress and had asked the subject to stop; some subjects became defensive, saying that they were only doing their job, or that the shocked individual's voluntary participation in the experiment made them, and not the subject, responsible for their own pain. There appears to be no real predictor of who will obey authority indefinitely and who will defy authority according to their conscience. Harlem, Navy vet and construction worker Wes Autrey was waiting on a subway platform with his two young daughters when a college student ahead of him began to experience a seizure and tumbled down between the tracks. A train was quickly approaching. Autrey, having only seconds to take action, jumped down to the tracks and threw himself on the thrashing and disoriented seizure victim, pushing his body down below the track. The train whizzed by -- with only about a 2-inch clearance for Autry. Autry, who was unhurt, saved the student's life; the student's injuries were limited to some scrapes and bruises.

C.S. Lewis described the human paradox in terms of existing as "half-angel, half-animal." The dim lizard-brain urge to blindly obey an alpha figure even to the point of causing needless suffering to another human being, even with the knowledge that one is free to stop at any time...the whole constellation of hardwired human behaviors that misfire, to our own and others' misery and frustration, hitting home the concept that "we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves" -- animal. Those times in human life when someone rises above instinct, self-interest and cultural conditioning to save the life of another person -- angelic.


Anonymous said...

absolutely amazing isn't it.

zorra said...

Yes. I remember the Joni Mitchell lyrics, "You're a brute/you're an angel/You can crawl/you can fly too." It doesn't surprise me that Milgram's experiment was replicated with essentially the same results. Human nature hasn't changed over time, but Autry's story is one of many that demonstrate that somehow we have retained traces of our Creator's nature too.

Tom in Ontario said...

I'd like to think that I wouldn't inflict pain on someone a la the Milgram experiment. But, alas, I'm also pretty sure I wouldn't have jumped down onto the subway tracks.