Monday, September 22, 2008

Ordinary People Support Proposition 8

Most people have probably ran across the Milgram Experiment, no?

Simply, Milgram brought into his lab subjects ostensibly for a test on learning. He also hired actors to play the subjects of the leaning experiment; they were ostensibly the "learner". The subjects were told by the experimenter their job was to be the teacher and to give the learner, held in the next room, a shock for poor performance. As the experiment progressed the simulated shocks were to be turned up by the teacher and went from mild to, eventually, deadly. In short, the majority of "teachers" were willing to subject the "learners" to enough voltage to cause apparent agony, and eventually death, while under the supervision of a trusted authority figure.

These are regular people off the street, willing to torture and murder their fellow human beings. What's worse is that most people could not resist authority.

Migram concludes:

"Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority."

65% of the subjects went all the way to the end of the experiment.

When the experiment was repeated with the "learner" being a puppy instead of an actor, 77% of the subject went all the way to the end.

So what kind of chance does a guy, a "learner" who's truly hooked up to the voltage, have? Particularly when he's trying to get equal treatment for his family and keep his marriage from being debased and annulled, not anything as extreme as to keep from dying (and I'm not as cute as a puppy)?

What are the odds of changing another person's mind, a teacher's mind, and keep them from pushing that button on the voting machine, particularly when the authority figure in their head speaks for God? That's right, God! What chance does a regular guy have?

Sure, I have some sympathy for the teacher's predicament, and how can you judge a human quality most of us own? Most people are susceptible to this.

Nevertheless, they know they're hurting us in ways they'd never want their family hurt, that their actions are "incompatible with fundamental standards of morality". Some of them will excuse their conscience to do it and, as the subjects in this experiment did, some will do it with great regret and hesitation. But most will be damned sure to do it, and regret means little when the shocks are real. The worst part is that our families are not actors behind a wall, undergoing simulated harm. No matter how much they try to talk themselves into thinking domestic partnerships hold the same rights as marriage, we are trapped at their whim and the harm is still real and here.

Closer to home, it seems over a third of the money for Proposition 8 has come from the LDS. I'm simultaneously heartened and sad to think most all of them probably feel they are doing what they should here. I'm sure most think they are doing what's right and by their own free will (if an experimenter just told a teacher to kill a man, or puppy they surely would not choose to; he must see himself as having chosen to be a part of something first).

It's just unique that, in this case, the experimenter is found more in an actual person, than the books or disembodied memes acting as experimenter for other protestants and Muslims and so on. All it'd take is a change of heart in the "experimenter". If one man, the leader of that church, tomorrow told his followers they should fight against Proposition 8, we all know what's right and what's felt to be done on free will would change for most of those activists. Still, the odds of that happening aren't large enough to guess at. Though, I've been surprised with the LDS change from the election 4 years ago to this year, a religion can't change on a dime without hurting its authority.

Eh, some days, not having a leader can be difficult; life is complicated and there are big questions on which most everyone would like guidance. But I think of the Milgram Experiment and many lessons taught to us through history and I'm glad to be unable to say I'm following orders (unless they're from my husband... or, if I'm really tired and off my guard, from my kids).


[kɹeɪ̯ɡ̊] said...

I'd never heard of this experiment before. The implications are quite frightening.

I think this all is part of why I believe that individual freedom is so important - free from authority that is far too easy to abuse.

intj-mom said...

Hi, 1st off the "shocks" in the Milgram experiments weren't supposed to be deadly ever. No participant was told they were deadly. They were told that they would be increasingly painful, but safe.

The Milgram experiments are actually seen as flawed because as a participant it's reasonable to assume that since the study was being done by a university that there would be checks in place to make sure nothing was actually dangerous.

Still, there is a large portion of the population that has a need for authority figures, stability, security, tradition and conformity.

There's a great article in The Edge called What Makes People Vote Republican plus very interesting commentaries that I think touches on some of the themes you were speaking of here. I think the themes in the article also help explain why religion is also popular.

intj-mom said...

Apparently the link got cut off:

intj-mom said...

One more try:

Scot said...

Intj-mom "They were told that they would be increasingly painful, but safe."

Hi there Intj-mom.

This is kind of the point though, right?

First, as it was told to me way back as an undergrad and as wiki seems to back up (I don't have the original paper with me and may be wrong, though), in one embodiment the actor was said to have heart problems and then, after a certain level of shock, stopped responding at all. After which the majority still administered shocks; am I wrong?

Anyway, the fact that people are told it is safe by the authority figure and they continue to choose to hurt a person, let alone kill them, in the face of that person's protest, is actually the scary bit. They wouldn't do it if they were told up front they were going to kill a person. Furthermore, the fact they assume they're in a place, a university, where their actions will cause no harm is also part of the problem. People abdicate their responsibility to act morally because they assume the authority, scientist or religious leader, and the place, university or church, have that under control.

Similarly, if you listen to the leaders of the pro-prop 8 movement they, more often than not, will severely downplay the direct harm they are proposing to families; it's safe, more of a semantic debate than one about real people with real problems caused by their lack of access to legal marriage.

Scot said...

And I got the link to work, and am reading. Thanks for that.

Scot said...

Speaking of the influence of location, I was just reading the wiki article and found:

"Experiment 10 took place in a modest office in Bridgeport, Connecticut, purporting to be the commercial entity "Research Associates of Bridgeport" without apparent connection to Yale University, to eliminate the university's prestige as a factor influencing the participants' behavior. In those conditions, obedience dropped to 47.5 percent."

Encouraging, but I still I think the influence of the authority in a place is part of the concern.

And that article was interesting, particularly for a guy who has swung both ways politically. The talk of gut morality reminded me of this research.

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