The Face of Evil

In 1961, Stanley Milgram carried out a series of experiments at Yale. The experiment consisted of two people — one of whom (the teacher) administers a shock to the other (the learner) if the learner gets an answer wrong.

The experiment, which turned out to be hugely controversial, found that 65% of its participants continued to administer shocks until the highest level, despite hearing the learner cry out in pain and ask for the experiment to be stopped.

Of course in reality, no one is actually shocked. The learner is a confederate, someone who plays a recording of someone yelling in pain. The real experiment is done on the teacher, and the aim of the experiment was to find out under what conditions extreme obedience — obedience to the point of hurting someone else — could be produced.

I just finished watching The Experimenters and it was an interesting movie. Much of it talks about how critics claimed that the experiment was ethically unsound and psychologically disturbing. But there are some curious facts about the way the experiment was carried out that merit mention:

  1. Not a single person was threatened, forced or cajoled into giving the shocks. When they protested, they were finally told, “You have no choice.”
  2. The teachers were deeply affected by the experiment. They argued, they got angry, they clenched their fists and hesitated and shook. And yet most of them continued shocking their learner.
  3. The teachers would sometimes ask the person running the experiment if they “accepted full responsibility”. When answered in the affirmative, they continued.
  4. The teachers were given a small shock at the beginning of the experiment and — though I’m not sure of the official numbers — had a pattern of guessing that the voltage they had been given was much higher than what they felt. This indicated that they knew what it felt like to be shocked.
  5. In later variations of the experiment, the learner was asked to beat on the wall separating them from the teacher. In another variation, the teacher was asked to physically hold down the learner’s hand while they were being shocked. People continued to shock others.

What Milgram showed was tied directly to the horrors of World War II and countless other instances of mass murder and torture: under the right conditions of authority and power, even an ordinary person, even someone who thinks of themselves as compassionate and empathetic, would not hesitate to follow orders.

The face of evil isn’t maliciousness, or revenge, or madness, or anything of the sort.

It was a curious human resistance to… resistance itself.

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