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Why good people can commit atrocities

There is a good episode on the Through The Wormhole show, Can We Eliminate Evil? For those who are interested, here is the full episode:


Some may have heard of the Milgram experiment. Apparently, its results are still valid today for most participants. Because this is what a new research shows after investigating people's proneness to electrocute an innocent person just because they have been told to do so.

In fact, now the results have become even worse than in the original experiment. The shocking conclusion is that more than half a century after the original research, the majority of respondents are still as prone, if not more, to electrocute a defenseless person that they do not know if some authority orders them to. This controversial research was first done by Stanley Milgram in Yale back in 1960, and it was inspired by the seemingly inexplicable way that the entire German nation fell in line with the ideas of the Nazi regime and become accomplices in its atrocities. Milgram wanted to discover if the Nazis and their supporters had inherited evil, or they were just blindly following orders by an authoritarian figure.

To test his theory, the observer (acting as an authoritarian scientist) was present in the room with a volunteer who sat at a line of buttons and a microphone. The participants were told to ask a series of questions to the volunteer (called "learner"). If the learner gave a wrong answer, the participant ("teacher") had to press a button that would send a short electric charge to the learner. After every next wrong answer, the power of the charge would be proportionally increased.

In fact, the learner was not really subjected to such stress. In reality he had agreed with the researcher to give false answers to certain questions, so the teacher could be put in a situation to have to electrocute them. To make this more realistic, the learner would occasionally be electrocuted for real, to cause a reaction.

The purpose of the experiment was to find out for how long the participants would agree to continue participating. Some questioned the task and the orders they were given right away, others mildly protested. You may think that most people would stop at the beginning of the experiment, but the results actually show that the majority of them were prepared to reach almost to the end. This supports the idea that totally normal and ordinary people could commit atrocities just because someone with authority has told them to.

Now the new reseach, published at the Social Psychological and Personality Science journal, conducted in Poland in 2015, shows that 90% of the participants went to the very end of the experiment. Although the sample is not representative enough (80 participants), it is a strong indication that there is something going on with people's minds when an authority is involved. That may explain why "strong-hand" authoritarianism has become fashionable once again these days on a global scale. And this does not bode well for what's coming.

Source: Talk politics.

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