In 1961, the psychologist Stanley Milgram performed an experiment that forever changed how people view moral action. While still fraught with criticism, Milgram’s experiment showed that people were compelled to act, more or less, by the situation they found themselves in — not by some core trait. A new version of Milgram’s experiment has just surfaced, and more than 50 years later, the findings still hold.
Consider an oft-cited thought experiment: You’re ambling along the sidewalk when a man in ripped, dirty pants and a torn shirt approaches you. He asks for a quarter, a nickel, anything to help him use the payphone nearby. Ignoring him, you glide right past. But consider what would have happened if the man were wearing a suit, and he was asking for a dollar — more money this time — to use the same payphone. Would your reaction change? Psychologists say it probably would. And the reason it would is that our brains don’t think in moral absolutes.
450 Volts of Obedience
Milgram’s experiment claimed to arrive at the same conclusion, if by darker means. He told participants that on the other side of a wall was a person taking instructions, and if the person didn’t take the instructions, they would receive an electric shock. The person giving that shock was the subject, only they didn’t know the shock was fake. Milgram wanted to see how far he could push people to harm others, for no other reason than someone told them to. Out of the 40 original participants, 65 percent (26 people) maxed out the machine, at 450 volts, delivered three times in a row.
Milgram was astounded. Here were these ordinary people, most of whom were respectable family men and housewives, who did unspeakable things to total strangers. The findings have since been criticized as inflated and flat-out false; however, they’ve also been recreated with a startling dose of accuracy. The latest reproduction, without the glaring ethical issue of leading people to believe they’re murderers, involves contestants on a fake television game show.
A team of French and American researchers recruited 66 people to participate. They were asked to perform a set of actions designed to mimic the original obedience tasks in Milgram’s experiment. When the team found similar results, they decided to ask a different question than what had been debated in the past — an easier question, it seemed. Instead of asking why people did bad things, they asked who were the people that did bad things. This, they hoped, would answer the harder question in the process.
They found personality and political affiliation weighed heavily on how people acted. Left-leaning people who tended not to be so agreeable in personality often refused to obey the researchers’ orders. People with more social grace, who we may label as “polite,” often held right-leaning political views and went along with their directions. “Our results provide empirical evidence,” the researchers wrote, “suggesting that individual differences in personality and political variables matter in the explanation of obedience to authority.”
Don’t be a Bystander
So does this mean polite people are more violent? No — at least not in some active way. You may be inclined to say polite people are violent in the same way a person who sees a mugging but doesn’t intervene is violent. They may let harm happen — either by allowing it to continue or, in the Milgram experiment, by acting out another’s wishes — but they don’t have violent tendencies at their core. Their situations compelled them not to act.
Understanding these differences could help to change behavior, especially as it relates to key social issues. It’s the contrarians, those with rebel tendencies, argues Dr. Kenneth Worthy, associate professor of environmental history and philosophy at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who are going to change the world for the better. They are the ones who will refuse to accept the world how it is. They feel compelled to change it — to stop shocking strangers because they know it is wrong.
Getting the other side on-board, those who are more open to molding, may require a bit of positive guidance. “To change these patterns, we need more contrarians willing to set examples by going against societal norms,” Worthy explains. “And we need to give them some leeway and respect.”