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In the early 1960’s the people of the world were still pondering how the otherwise good people of Germany followed Hitler into World War II. After all, the same atrocities that shocked and befuddled the world committed at Nazi hands also shocked many Germans⁠—even some of them who were involved. Stanley Milgram wondered at what it was that caused ordinary people with contemporary values to engage in acts of torture and genocide. How could people go against their conscience in the name of “just following orders”.

So he conducted a test.

Simply described, a test subject was recruited by newspaper and ad mail which sought people to aid in a “memory study”. The subjects thought they were assisting rather than that being tested.

Most of his contemporaries felt that the Milgram experiments were a waste of time, after all the results were easily predictable: only a scant few sadists would follow Dr Millgram’s protocol⁠—most people would leave.

The subjects came from all educational backgrounds and walks of life. The subject and an actor were ushered into a room and asked to draw names from a hat to see if he would be the “learner” or the “teacher” in the faux-can-memory-be-improved-via-punishment study. In reality, the names in the hat both said “teacher”, but the actor knew this, and would always report that he’d drawn “learner”. The three participants were then put into place, the actor in a booth, and the subject was seated at a console. After getting a taste of the 45-volt electric shock that would serve as the punishment, the teacher would read a list of word-pairs to the learner. After finishing the list, he then read the first word of the pair, and a list of four possible matches. If the learner did not give the correct match to the word as a response, he was punished by the teacher. Each wrong response meant that the voltage was increased 15 volts. The teacher’s control panel that delivered the shocks was thoroughly marked, including a red, “dangerous” level. Of course, the actor failed most of his questions, and the teacher was told to continue giving shocks despite the man in the booth pounding on the wall and complaining about a heart condition. As wrong answers were given the voltage went up; if the teacher expressed any concern about the situation, he was told things like “You won’t be held responsible”.

If a teacher expressed the desire to leave, there was hard and fast protocol for dealing with it. He was told:

  1. Please continue.
  2. The experiment requires you to continue, please go on.
  3. It is essential that you continue.
  4. You have no choice, you must continue.

Only if the subject persisted after all the refutes was the test terminated.

65% of the subjects followed through up to and including the 450-volt shock. 65% of common US citizens listened to a man cry in pain and exclaim that his bad ticker might bust, and followed the directions of a man in a white coat.

One might hope that we’ve evolved to the point that we can question authority⁠—where we can look our leaders in the face and ask why. But I wager we haven’t yet. Take for example airline security. We can’t take nail clippers onto the cabin, and why? Because we’re told that they can be used as a weapon? A 6’6″, 300 pound boxing champ is allowed on board; if he wanted to cause a fuss, would nail clippers matter?

Why aren’t we all asking why?