In order for the horrors of World War II’s Holocaust to happen, ordinary citizens and soldiers had to carry out the evil schemes of the Nazis. To find out how this happened and if it could happen again, Stanely Milgram, a professor of psychology, conducted numerous experiments. He told his subjects that he was conducting a memory study. One subject, the teacher, would take commands from a scientist in a lab coat. The scientist told the teacher that he would be teaching word pairs to another subject in the next room. If the partner in the next room got an answer wrong, the teacher was to administer an electric shock. With each wrong answer, the voltage of the shock increased. In reality no actual shocks were administered since the student in the next room was an actor. As each wrong answer was given and as each increasing dose of electricity was administered, the actor screamed louder, sometimes pleading with the teacher to end the experiment. When the teacher, hearing the screams of his student, asked to stop the experiment, the scientist would urge him to continue, saying, “The experiment requires that you continue.” In the end 65% of the teachers followed the directions of the scientist, continuing to increase the dosage until it reached its highest point, which was marked “XXX,” implying death.
Milgram’s study clearly showed how ordinary people could easily be persuaded to commit unspeakable acts of evil. When put in a position where they see themselves as just following orders, individuals become instruments instead of people, operating without a moral compass.
The 90/90 Prospect
The 90/90 Prospect
In variations of his study, Milgram had subjects observe others act as teachers before taking part themselves. In the cases where the first teacher rebelled against the instructions of the scientist, 90% of participants also refused to continue. In cases where the first teacher followed the directions of the scientist to the point of administering the fatal dose of electricity, 91% of participants also went all the way. The conclusion from this is that we are powerful social models for each other. Goodness is infectious; unfortunately, so is evil.