A friend sent me these video links(see below) on a replication of the famous Milgram's Obedience to Authority Experiment. I first heard about this while in a psychology class at Kennesaw State University, but watching the videos inspired me to revisit the original experiment by Dr. Stanley Milgram at Yale University in 1961 as well as the Stanford Prison Experiment by Dr. Philip Zambardo in 1971. The elements of these experiments demonstrate something important to understand as we engage the culture on issues like embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning.
Milrgam's experiment worked by using two subjects - the teacher and the learner - to allegedly demonstrate the effects of negative feedback through electric shocks on memory and capacity to learn. The teacher would ask a series of questions through a microphone and the learner would respond over an intercom from another room. Every wrong answer is punished with an electric shock that increased with voltage on each corresponding wrong answer. The voltage level started at a low 15 volts, but eventually rose to a lethal 450 volts. Every switch is clearly marked with explanations of the intensity of the shock delivered except for the last three that are labeled “XXX.”
Here is the trick. The learner is an actor not a participant. He is “randomly chosen” as the learner through a rigged drawing of participant roles with every teacher. He is strapped into the chair in front of the teacher every time, and every teacher receives a demonstration of an actual electric shock on their own arm to make the experiment appear real. The learner warns the scientist in front of the teacher that he has a mild heart condition and is worried about the effects of the shocks on his heart. And finally, all of his unpleasant reactions are previously recorded and played back for the teachers so that every teacher hears the exact same objections as the experiment progresses.
The willingness of people to cast off their personal moral considerations in certain environments fascinated Milgram. Things like mob mentalities or the willingness of generally moral German citizens to participate in the Nazi atrocities seemed examples of people deferring to group think or authority in incomprehensible ways. He wondered pertaining to Nazi Germany, “How is it possible that ordinary people who are courteous and decent in every day life can act callously, inhumanely, without any limitations of conscience?” This is why he developed this experiment and when choosing the appropriate authority figure he chose the scientist.
So what happened? In his original experiment about 2/3 of the subjects went all the way through to the end of the experiment though the learner demanded to be released and told them his heart was bothering him. The last several shocks are administered to a non-responsive learner who no longer answers the questions at all but is still punished for non-participation. In the replication of the experiment, 9 out of 12 teachers went all the way through to the end.
If you watch the videos you will see that the teachers were obviously disturbed by what was happening as their moral intuitions screamed that it was wrong to hurt another human being in this manner. These weren't morally insensitive people or psychopaths, but normal men and women clearly troubled by the experiment. They all objected to the scientist and told him they thought they should stop.
So what pressure did the scientist place on them to force them to continue? He would look up from his notes and prompt them, “The experiment requires you continue.” He would assure them, “there will be no lasting tissue damage.” If necessary he would say, “It is essential that you go on.” That was it. That was all the coercion necessary to get normal human beings to override their conscience and deliver a lethal 450 volt shock to another human being for failing to answer a question in a voluntary experiment.
Why? Dr. Clifford Stott says it is because we naturally trust scientists as authority figures. We trust that they are working to further human flourishing and that their experiments are ultimately for our greater good. Perhaps the strongest prompt in the experiment is when an objecting teacher is told that it is essential that the experiment continue. The term essential plays off of what Dr. Stott calls the ideological influence. At root the issue is as follows quoting Dr. Stott:
What they [the teachers] believe science to be. Science is a positive product. It produces beneficial findings and knowledge for society that are helpful to society... science is providing some kind of system for good.
So when encouraged to continue hurting an innocent human being against his expressed will with full knowledge of the intensity of the pain inflicted - torturing someone for science - these people push past their reservations and pass off the responsibility for their actions onto the scientists or even on the learner for initially agreeing to participate. More than one teacher seems comforted that the current objections of the learner are somehow balanced against the previous agreement to participate.
So what does this have to do with stem cell research, therapeutic cloning, and human technology? We need to be aware that the people we are trying to convince of the immorality of embryo/life destructive research trust scientists to a remarkable and troubling degree. True, scientific achievement has earned good will, but even the most sophisticated science teaches us nothing about the nature of human value and objective moral duties. It may answer epistemologically interesting questions as to where our moral feelings are realized in our physical being or what part of the brain is active upon our considerations of value, but that correlation is not necessarily causal and cannot address whether those feelings correspond to real things. Value simply does not fall into the realm of things that can be measured or weighed or repeatedly observed and so reflection of this sort will require a different intellectual discipline no matter how much that observation chafes those unusually dedicated empirical research.
Knowing this, how do we diagnose where we are? We are told that embryonic stem cell research, therapeutic cloning and other advanced human technology research is essential. We are told that we must go on because the benefits will be great for all of mankind. Some of us argue in response that we must consider the object of our actions and not just the beneficiaries. Destroying embryonic humans may help others, but why are they the type of life that we can destroy? Creating and genetically manipulating human life could conceivably cure other human lives, but what makes one class of human life nothing more than a material resource for another?
The audience to our debate – those we wish to convince – are not neutral from the start. They trust science and it enjoys impressive idealogical influence in their lives. Influence that overcame what Dr. Milgram called the basic limitations of conscience in his experiment. When people are faced with a clear cut decision to either hurt another human being or stand up to the scientist telling them to hurt that other human being, we most often acquiesce to the scientist and deliver the shock no matter how high the voltage. Because science is good. That is how people behave when they have no question of the humanity of the person being hurt.
Add into that the emotional nature of a family member being promised if the experiments can continue their ailing child, parent, or spouse can be cured, and we must acknowledge that we are facing challenges well beyond the normal argument. We are asking them to go against a trusted authority that claims the possibility of doing something miraculous for the people who are most precious to them if the experiments can just continue.
I am a firm believer that before we can effectively communicate any point we need to understand our audience as best we can. What do I want to say and to whom am I saying it are the first questions that have to be answered. If I know that the argument I am preparing to make is going to meet strong opposition - both intellectually and emotionally - then it is my responsibility to be prepared to defend those arguments rigorously, graciously, and respectfully if at all possible.
In my next blog post I will look at how an element of the Stanford Prison Experiment adds yet another wrinkle to consider in understanding our audience.
Part 1 of Milgram's Obedience Reproduction