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Half of Milgram’s subjects told him to take a hike, hallelujah

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I’m running today but needed to get this up in an optimistic spirit. On Sunday mornings, my NPR station airs Krista Tippett’s great religion show, On Being. And this morning during a conversation with a social scientist about torture, Tippett aired audiotape from the Stanley Milgram experiment at Yale that blew me away. The Milgram experiment is famous of course for what it demonstrated about human beings’ willingness to torture others at the direction of authority. Well, Tippett pointed out that half of Milgram’s subjects refused to follow orders, and she played a section of the researchers’ tapes that showed a true profile in independence. I wish we knew his name, but his anonymity serves the larger spiritual point. Here’s a transcript, with Tippett’s intoduction. “Man” in the transcript is the authority figure. The “subject” is the confederate who acts like he’s being tortured. And “Man Two” is the actual subject of the experiment, who has been assigned the role of “teacher.” Tippett:

“The famous ‘obedience experiments’ conducted by social psychologist Stanley Milgram beginning in the early 1960s tested whether average citizens would inflict harm on another person under instruction from an authority figure. Milgram and his staff asked participants to deliver a series of progressively intense electric shocks each time a man answered a word problem incorrectly. Before this experiment, leading psychiatrists predicted that fewer than 1 percent of participants would be willing to administer shocks at dangerous levels. As it turned out, half of the participants were ready to comply in this. Yet, as Darius Rejali notes, half did not. Like the man we’ll hear resisting instructions in the following audio. Please note that the electric shock you are about to hear is fake and the subjects of punishment in the Milgram experiment were in fact actors, though participants believed they were administering real pain.”

Man: The experiment requires that you go on. Teacher, please continue.


Man: Incorrect. A hundred-and-fifty volts.


[Man groans]

Man Two: Sad face.

Subject: That’s all. Get me out of here. I told you I had heart trouble. My heart’s starting to bother me now. Get me out of here, please.

Man: Continue. Go on.

Subject: You’re starting to bother me. I refuse to go on. Let me out.

Man Two: I think we ought to find out what’s wrong in there first.

Man: The experiment requires that you continue, teacher.

Man Two: Well, the experiment might require that we continue but I still think we should find out what the condition of the gentleman is.

Man: As I said before, although the shocks may be painful, they’re not dangerous.

Man Two: Look, I don’t know anything about electricity. I don’t profess any knowledge, nor will I go any further until I found out if the guy’s OK.

Man: It’s absolutely essential that you continue.

Man Two: Well, essential or not, this program isn’t quite that important to me that I should go along doing something that I know nothing about, particularly if it’s going to injure someone. I don’t know what this is all about.

Man: Well, whether the learner likes it or not, we must go on until he’s learned all the word pairs correctly.

Man Two: Well, you can sure have your $4.50 back. I didn’t want it anyhow. I intended to give it some charitable organization. But I wouldn’t go on with it.

Man: The $4.50 is not the issue here. That check is yours …

Man Two: Yeah, I realize that.

Man: … simply for coming to the lab. It is essential that you continue the experiment.

Man Two: No, it isn’t essential. Not one bit.

Man: You’ve got no other choice, teacher.

Man Two: Oh, I have a lot of choices. My number one choice is that I wouldn’t go on if I thought he was being harmed.


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