Finding Direction: Factors of Choice for Individuals 2.4.0
Sometimes it is hard to see what the choice is. Sometimes it is hard to see that there used to be a choice, but the time for choosing has passed us by. And sometimes we believe that we have no choice and are trapped.
A Psychological Experiment on Authority and Violence 2.4.1
Stanley Milgram’s famous psychology experiment from the 1960s asked “experimental subjects” to give increasingly powerful electric shocks to people who appeared to be “doing the wrong thing.” These people were actually actors and were not really being shocked, but they were good at pretending to be in pain. This was a telling experiment for a couple of reasons.
One, of course, was that the subjects were convinced by “authorities” to obey orders with obviously painful results for other people whom they did not even know. Apparently once they had started down this path, the subjects just could not or did not want to refuse to obey. The “authorities” (who were actually conducting the experiment) told them their action was required. The subjects needed to shock these strangers for the success of the project or even for the strangers’ own good. Maybe some secretly wanted to hurt others, and the authorities gave them the chance to do this for a “good” reason. Perhaps, as long as the authorities told them it was the right thing to do, even convincing them that it was for the best, some were not able to find a line in their personal conscience that they would not cross.
But, secondly, and just as important, the subjects themselves were traumatized by their own actions. They were traumatized even when they knew that the victims were actors – maybe especially when they knew the victims were actors. They knew then that they were capable of deliberately harming others who had done no harm. They were ashamed and filled with guilt. Clearly the subjects did not realize how they would feel afterwards. The designers of the experiment also did not understand how traumatic the results would be for the unfortunate subjects. In fact, the results were so traumatic that this type of experiment was forbidden as unethical in the early 1970s. Even though it was a terrifying experiment, it revealed a fearful truth.
Without Words We Cannot Think
“No doubt another may also think for me; but it is not therefore desirable that he should do so to the exclusion of my thinking for myself.” Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), “Economy,” Walden (1854)