You too can do harm…

Are you capable of committing great evil? The real answer, as history has demonstrated over and over again, is a resounding yes. Take a quick browse through psychology, sociology, anthropology and you will find the evidence overwhelming.

Milgrams Shock Generator (Ontario Science Museum)
Milgram's Shock Generator (Ontario Science Museum)

Now you will have a healthy reaction that claims, “Of course I’m not evil. Sure I make mistakes, but overall I am a good person.” But how do you know? How do you know your current actions aren’t causing untold suffering elsewhere? How do you know there aren’t circumstances where you will commit atrocities?

The uncomfortable truth is that many of our decisions are influenced by circumstances far more than we would like to believe. People who committed genocide through action or inaction believed themselves to be good people. If we cannot understand why good people do evil, then we risk making the same error in judgment ourselves.

Allow me then to share a revealing experiment with you and suggest how we can strive to be less influenced by our circumstances.

Before I begin, it will be easy to dismiss the evidence. It will be easy to say “I would never do that!”. However, consider that 86% of Australians rate their job performance as “above average” and 90% of American business managers rate their performance as superior to that of their average peer. In other words, we understate our faults and overstate our abilities.

Pretend that you really do fall into the normal range of human behaviour as you read through the following experiment.

** Selected excerpts from The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimardo **

Imagine that you have responded to a university ad where you are paid to be a part of a research experiment in finding ways to improve memory and learning. You arrive to find a scientist in a formal lab coat and another applicant. The task is straightforward. One of you will be the “teacher” who gives the other person the “learner” a set of word pairings to memorize. During the test, the teacher gives the learner the key word and the learner attempts to respond with the associated word. If the learner gets it right, a verbal reward is given. If the learner gets it wrong, the teacher presses a lever on an apparatus (shown in the picture above) that delivers a shock to the learner.

The shock machine has 30 switches starting from 15 volts at the left and increasing by 15 volts for each switch to the right. The switches are labeled from “Strong Shock” to “Intense Shock” to “Danger, Severe Shock” to the last switches marked ominously with “XXX”.

Straws are drawn and you become the teacher. You are given a sample shock of 45 volts (the third lever) to get a sense of what it feels like. The test begins. The learner initially does well, but later starts making errors and you start pressing the switches. The learner complains that it hurts. You look at the experimenter, who nods to continue. As the shock levels increase in intensity, so do the learner’s screams, saying that he does not want to continue. You hesitate but the experimenter insists you have no choice but to continue.

Now the learner begins complaining about his heart condition. Errors become much more frequent. You plead with your learner to concentrate, but to no avail. The learner screams “Let me out of here! You can’t keep me here! Let me out!” Obviously by now, you don’t want to continue. Nevertheless, the experimenter reminds you of the contract, your agreement, and moreover claims responsibility for any consequences.

After pressing the 300-volt switch, the learner doesn’t respond. You want the experimenter to check on the learner, but he does not and instead tells you that if the learner doesn’t respond within five seconds, consider it wrong. You become distressed, but are told to follow the rules and keep posing the test items.

** End excerpts **

How far would you go? How many switches would you flip?

Like most people, you would claim that there that you would have walked out before the end of the experiment because only sadists would continue to the last switch.

And like most people, you would be wrong. In the now famous Milgram’s Shock experiment, two out of three, roughly 65%, of the volunteers went past lethal shock levels…. a result that has been replicated across the world at differing time periods.

Sit with that number for a moment…Two out of three of your friends would knowingly flip the switch to the point where the learner was unresponsive and likely dead. More astonishing is almost every person who shocked the learner to the point of silence continued to flip the rest of the switches to 450 volts. Don’t believe me? This exact experiment was carried out again on this TV show:

Why does this happen? What is it about the situation that causes normal people to kill instead of to walk away?

There are many reasons, but the most powerful one is the human instinct to obey a legitimate authority figure. That behaviour is easy to see in kids who try to please the parents. As kids become adults, the authority figure changes to become the boss, the police, their peers, or religious authorities. Often, the institution backing the authority confers even greater power to the individual. In Milgram’s experiment, the scientist is the authority figure backed by the institution of the university (incidentally, compliance rates dropped when the experiment was not held by a university).

Where do you abdicate your power and responsibility to a perceived authority figure?

Do you ever assume the spouse doing the repairs knows what he or she is doing even though you see a mistake? Ever follow a person on a hike and realize you have no idea where your going? Or do ever feel nervous when a police officer is driving right behind you? These are all micro-examples of how we shutdown our thinking to defer to authority.

Milgram’s experiment had many other important factors that contributed to compliance. They included

  • Having a contractual obligation to do the job… (“I’m am obligated to do the job.”)
  • Creating rules that seem reasonable at first but are later not… (“Rules are rules after all!”)
  • Diffusing responsibility… (“I didn’t do it. He told me to do it.”).
  • Progressively increasing the steps towards the outcome… (“What’s another 15 volts?”)
  • Making the exit cost high by allowing dissent but not giving permission to leave… (“At least I voiced my issues.”)
  • Providing an ideology to justify the use of any means… (“This experiment helps people develop better memory.”)

All of these aspects tap into deeply embedded characteristics of human beings. Every one of us has fallen for the above traps in minor and sometimes major ways. Their power over us should not be underestimated.

Knowing this, what can we do to reduce the likelihood of blindly obeying an authority figure?

The short answer is to develop our character. The long answer would far exceed what can be written in this article, but I will nevertheless highlight a few key practices for character development.

1. Develop high levels of personal responsibility…

Milgram found that he could increase compliance to 90% by one changing one simple variable: create a teaching team where the teacher tells someone else to shock the learner. In other words, diffuse the responsibility.

When we give up responsibility for our actions, we stop thinking about what we are doing, and as we all know, it is easier to NOT think than to think. Taking responsibility then requires us to think continuously of our own actions and its impact.

2. Keep the bigger picture in mind…

We are often told to take responsibility for our actions. What is less said is that we should be taking responsibility for our actions and inactions in the short-term and in the long-term. No easy task!

I have played in soccer games where I lose my temper (and all perspective) or driven a car in a fit of rage. Under pressure, we may find ourselves unable to act quickly enough (“It happened so quickly I couldn’t do anything”) or the consequences of the action are too distant in time or distance to matter to us.

Learning to think, to maintain perspective, to see the big picture under pressure and stress is a lifelong practice of taking ownership of our lives.

3. Accept the fact that we do harm and then do better…

The reality is that many of our actions already do harm. We just don’t see the consequences immediately. We may work for companies that create conflict in other regions of the world. We may buy products that are environmentally damaging. We may drive when we could walk or take transit. Of course, we will justify all these actions and minimize the issues and exaggerate the positives.

But if we want to move forward, then we must accept our fallibility and seek to do better. We are fallible and that’s okay, if we take responsibility for it.

4. Seek out examples of resisting authority…

Milgram also found that compliance rates dropped to 10% if the participant was shown an example of someone refusing to continue the experiment. Having a single model person demonstrating how to say “no” to the authority was enough to help others rebel against authority! No wonder dictators would kill any person who defied them. As Hopper from the movie It’s a Bug’s Life said, “You let one ant stand up to us, then they all might stand up!”

In life, it helps to know about people in the past who have resisted authorities for a cause. Rebels such as Nelson Mandela and Che Guevera and Rachel Carson are valuable parts of our global culture. They provide us positive examples of standing up to authorities rather than blindly following them out of ignorance or fear.

Ultimately, life is where we practice and test our character. Helen Keller said, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experiences of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” Although it is hard, wouldn’t you want to be the kind of person that refuses to flip the next switch?

Chris Hsiung BSc. CPCC
HUMAN Venture Coaching

Chris Hsiung graduated with distinction from the University of Calgary in Electrical Engineering. He is a certified professional coach through the Coaches Training Institute (CTI), accredited by the International Coaching Federation (ICF). He is learning, teaching, presenting curriculum through Leadership Calgary. Currently he runs a practice (U Venture) guiding and coaching professionals who are choosing to engage in pioneering life challenges.

2 Replies to “You too can do harm…”

  1. I have personally experienced this in Human Services for almost 20 years and never saw it until someone pointed it out to me (and were my eyes opened!). In supporting people with developmental disabilities there are some people labelled as difficult, challenging, menace, or worse. To protect these people, and the staff supporting them, the government mandates training in restrictive practices. Non-violent Crisis Intervention and Prevention teaches staff the escalation process, and the stances, blocks and holds to deflect, or subdue another person. (FYI I have never seen these techniques offered to the people they would be used on). As I think your article alludes to, the fact that people are required to take this training by the government makes people more likely to use it without regard to their own moral responsibility, or even deep reflection on which situations would warrant such action. People are “trained” to use the least restrictive required for the situation, but often written documentation states that “it happened so fast, I had to use x level”, “or I didn’t see any precursors, he suddenly blew, and I had to do x” – easier not to think; easier not to pay attention until it is too late. Don’t get me wrong, if someone is going to walk into traffic without looking, I will stop them, but to restrain someone because I was not paying attention to their form of communication until they felt no alternative but to “act out” is not looking at the big picture. If more people pay attention, accept their role and responsibility for the situation, and resist mindlessly following what they “think” they have been told to do, less harm could be done.

  2. The article underlined to me the importance of ethical impulse/directive behind institutions. Given the power that these institutions have, the mission statement/or ethical imperative they operate under must be explicitly outlined since the majority of people will always follow authority or routines the way in which we can ensure that harm does not occur unwittingly is to make sure the whole ethos of the organization is built on Level 5 aspirations and or thinking.
    Institutions have a strange way of making things work in small increments. Where those increments are headed is guided by that ethical underpinning, the higher the aspirations in that founding/essential document, the more ethical the result. Trust on the institutional systems to make it happen.
    The organization I work for has 4 overarching objectives which are supposed to permeate to the grassroots level i.e. the students I teach. Its interesting to note how those higher order directives in some way and shape are starting to permeate every part of what we do even though they seemed nebulous at first…a worker bee like me does what I am told, except if I am part of LC at which point I have no choice but to look at it from the outside.

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