Monday, 28 April 2014

It’s the system, not me...

An excerpt from the book Homo Imitans by Leandro Herrero:

Not many people knew what was going on in the psychology department. Nothing unusual about that. An advert in the local newspaper offered volunteers a few dollars for participating in an experiment, and many people from the city of New Haven applied.

The study was run by Stanley Milgram, a small curious assistant professor specializing in social experiments. This one examined the effects of punishment—administered here as an electric shock—on learning. The psychologist conducting the experiment read sequences of words to be repeated: house, money, flower, pretty, whether, cat. Each time a subject got them wrong, the volunteer, who was sitting on the other side of a one-way glass screen, administered a small electric shock. The potency of the shock increased progressively with each mistake – the lever moving from 25v to 30v, 40v and so on.

As the experiment continued, the subject’s reaction changed from a grimace to expression of more and more discomfort. Invariably, the level became very unpleasant, even unbearable. The subject would be almost screaming. The administrator objected. “Never mind,” the psychologist said, “this is a well-controlled experiment, you need to keep pushing the button.” Screams. “I want to stop. He wants to get out.” “No,” said the psychologist, “keep trying. It’s the protocol, we can’t break this experiment yet.” And so it continued until the pain was intolerable and the administrators were shaking. But they kept pushing the button. Well, some of them: 65 % to be precise. The other 35% gave up and refused to continue the torture.

The experiments were repeated and repeated, always the same: mistakes, shocks, up, up, up. And the citizens from New Haven kept pushing the button even though they were torturing the guy on the other side of the screen. Again and again, 65% complied with the instructions, and 35% told the psychologist to keep the money. More screams, more shocks and more knowledge about learning.

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