Tuesday, 12 March 2013


We have been learning about obedience in psychology recently.  It is an interesting subject.  The main authority is a man called Milgram, who lost relatives in the Second World War and wanted to find out why the Nazis behaved as they did - was it sufficient to say that they had just been following orders?  Would anybody in that position have behaved in the same way?

Milgram's experiements (about fifty years ago) alarmingly, seem to show that almost anybody would.  He set up a situation where participants were told that they were helping with an experiment.  They were told that they could be 'learners' or 'teachers', although in reality all were 'teachers' and the 'learners' were actors.  Each participant had to ask the 'learners' a series of questions - if the answers were wrong they were told to administer an electric shock, in increasing increments, up to a limit of 450V. 

In reality, no shocks were administered, but taped responses from the 'learners' were played back to the participants, who had seen the learners strapped into chairs and wired up, but then pressed the buttons (that they believed gave the shocks) from another room.  As the shocks got greater, the taped responses started to be of pain, and then pleading for mercy and finally going silent (the implication here being that the 'learner' might be unconscious or even dead). 

The participants were clearly increasingly uneasy, but the 'professor' sitting in the room with them insisted that they should continue with the experiment, and the majority of them (65%) did so, right up to the limit of 450V.  100% actually administered shocks up to 300V - higher than the UK mains voltage. 

Well, there were mitigating factors.  The experiments took place at Yale University, so it was a reputable academic establishment and the participants clearly trusted that no harm would take place to the 'learners'.  They also believed that the 'learners' had consented to the experiment, and so on. 

In my opinion, though, there is a valuable message here.  All individuals are capable of good or bad - we need to be aware of this, and always think carefully about our actions.  I try my best to lead a good and moral life, but still find myself sometimes doing the wrong thing - making judgements about people, privately or openly, or gossiping perhaps. 

I am glad that I have never been in a position where I felt pressurised to do something that I knew would hurt another human being.  A couple of weeks ago I spoke to a friend, a psychiatric nurse, who told me about the first time she had to give an injection, while training (in the hospital where I was sectioned three times).  She said that it was discussed beforehand, very clinically - 'I'll hold his left leg, you hold his right leg, you have his left arm...you hold his head to the side in case he vomits...'  But, she said, when it came to the moment when she had to give the jab, and the boy (just nineteen years old) was crying and pleading with her not to do it, she found it really really hard to go ahead.  She did it though...  Now she doesn't work in a hospital, but in the community on a drug rehab programme. 

The problem is, I suppose, that those people who continue to work in the system become de-sensitised to the actuality of what they are doing - using force on another human being.  And that they justify it by the thought that it is for that person's ultimate good.  And then it only takes one or two rotten people within that system for things to become even worse.  It is not the fault of any individual though, it is the system that allows these things to happen that is wrong, and that needs to change.


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