In 1963, Stanley Milgram published what he found in his experiments that measured the willingness of subjects to obey orders from people they perceived as authority figures. In the experiments, volunteers were made to inflict a series of electric shocks that progressively increased in voltage to another person they could see or hear react with pain (the wired-up victim wasn’t actually being shocked, they were told to act as though they were).
Milgram devised his study just at the time Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann was on trial. The question how so many people could carry out inhuman acts of cruelty in concentration camps was on the minds of many, and Milgram’s study was one attempt at finding an answer.
The answer he did find was deeply disturbing, and deeply human. Under the command of people they considered authorities, experimental volunteers would administer what appeared to be deadly levels of electricity to the victims. Because volunteers who gave shocks could see or hear the pain they caused, the effects on their mental state was profound. Milgram had discovered that every day people were capable of committing atrocities under certain conditions.
In the wake of the massacre in Conneticut last week, many people are asking again, how could this happen? And why does it continue to happen over and over again? What could motivate anyone to do something so horrifying?
The Milgram study doesn’t give answers to our southern neighbours, shocked and demoralized by the recent violence. No one is standing over these young men who decide to pick up a gun and kill. But asking the question why is a good start. The violence doesn’t stop at the border, as anyone who remembers the Dec. 6, 1989 Ecole Polytechnique massacre knows.
Does the moral responsibility lie with a culture swimming in the glorification of violence? What is the effect of technology that keeps people out of contact with one another?
Variations on Milgram’s study showed that as the victim’s presence increased (seen or heard), the more likely the participant wasn’t going to comply with the authority figure’s commands. The reality of what they were doing was unavoidable.
If people these days are more likely to have contact that is mediated by technology where there is a screen interface instead of a human face, is there a reduced sense of responsibility or compassion?
There may have been mental health issues involved in the choices that led to the killing in Conneticut on Dec. 14, certainly. But there is no harm in asking ourselves what part we may have to play in a society where violence is frequently portrayed as the correct course of action. If there is some part of the horror that we can examine and change, even if only in our own hearts, let’s start now.