Broken brains - the terrifying things everyone is capable of doing (Part 1)

February 27, 2015

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What if your brain had a deep, dark secret? A power to make you the worst kind of person? Well, science says your brain probably has plenty, and this mini series talks about them so you can take back control. This time we talk about Milgram's obedience experiements and how they show that under the right conditions, you'd be able to electrocute someone to death.

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Unfiled: this is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology.

Imagine one of the most complicated Lego contraptions you ever built without using the instructions. Did you ever run out of the pieces you needed to finish it? Maybe substituted two little, different coloured blocks for one long one? It wasn’t perfect, but it did the job. Well that’s kind of like the human brain (we think). And sometimes, that imperfect solution may have worked for a time, but causes some serious problems now. Or maybe it was always a problem, but no one ever noticed before. Well, psychology notices. Here’s the first in our mini-series on those problems and how to solve them.


In our inaugural article, I want to talk about one of the most infamous (and shocking); Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments. Let’s set the scene. You’ve signed up to be part of a study for some extra cash. You walk up the stairs to a grand brick building at Yale University in 1950’s Connecticut. Inside you’re greeted by a bloke in a lab coat and invited to sit next to a guy who’s also here for some spare change. The lab coat separates you by drawing straws and takes the other guy into another room, comes back and sits you in front of an ‘electroshock generator’. Your job is to teach the other guy word pairs through an intercom and every time he gets one wrong, you shock him. Every time you shock him, you increase the voltage. The lab coat shocks you once before you start to show you what it’s like (it sucks). As the experiment goes on (the other guy is real bad at learning word pairs), and the voltage starts to get quite high, the other guy starts to plead with you to stop. You keep going. Then he starts banging on the wall and maybe complaining about his heart condition. You keep going. If you ask the lab coat if you can stop, depending on how much hard you pressed you’d get these answers (in order):
  • Please continue.

  • The experiment requires that you continue.

  • It is absolutely essential that you continue.

  • You have no other choice, you must continue.

image Milgram's shock device. You'd think that even if the last option, 'INTENSE SHOCK' didn't make you think twice, the fact it's highlighted in red might have.

Now the electroshock generator had labels for the voltages, marking 15 volt increments, but also the intensity of the shock (e.g. severe, or at the highest level, ‘XXX’). But before you even get there, at a certain point you notice that the other guy has stopped his pleading and banging and is utterly silent. Eventually you get to the end, you press the ‘XXX’ button and there’s still no sound from the other guy. In fact you press it three times. You bury your hands in your head and sob; well done, you’ve just killed for the first time (at least I hope it’s the first).

So this was a legitimate series of studies carried out in the 1950’s and I bet you’re wondering how many people went all the way to XXX, and pressed it the three times necessary for the lab coat to end the experiment. And I'd like to note here that if you pushed the lab coat past those four questions, they would end the experiment. If you flat refused to go on, no one made you. Well, I’ll tell you; 61-66% according to a 1999 meta-analysis (a sort of summary) of all the variations of the study went on and apparently murdered some poor fellow. A THIRD OF THE PARTICIPANTS. Now there are some concerns around the samples; they rarely used women for example and the results might not be valid in non-Western cultures. Also, one scientist went through Milgram's audiotapes and interviewed some participants, and found that the experiment wasn't quite so rigorous as everyone believed. But really, it was quite a stable result even when the study was repeated with different variations and by different people over time.

So what does that mean? Essentially that most of us can be monsters if someone in authority tells us to? Well that was Milgram's angle. He was inspired in part by the atrocities carried out by the Nazi's and those who professed at the Nuremburg Trials that they were 'just doing their job'. Recent studies seem to support the idea that a similar result would be the outcome today too. So what do we do? Well the answer is fairly simple. Use your head. The proposed explanation of this obedience phenomenon is that we simply stop using our brains when we think this is someone else's problem. Especially when that person is thought to be a subject matter expert (i.e. smarter than us). It's been shown in almost every replication, including Milgram's own that people had severe psychological and physiological reactions to the scene in front of them. If you're in a situation where you feel literally sick at what's going on, it might be an idea to take a raincheck on being involved. You'd think you wouldn't need a bunch of science to figure that out, but there you go...

Stay tuned for our upcoming articles in the mini-series of which the next can be found here. Perhaps you'd like to Join Us (scroll down the bottom of the page) to stay updated with this and the latest Dirt? Until then, maybe you'd be interested in why it's so hard to figure out when people really are 'broken'? Or a reader favourite, why speaking in tongues might not be as weird as you think? Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology.

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