Could You Be Ordered to be Cruel to Another Person?

Science says you probably would carry out an act of cruelty

Ever since the atrocities that took place around the two World Wars, there have been great concerns raised by social scientists regarding humanity in general. Common sense should have warned us about these vile movements, and we should have learned our lesson from them.

Yet we’ve seen even more of them since the end of World War II.

It’s easy to understand the motivation of an evil dictator, but why do normal people empower them in the first place? And when called upon, why do ordinary people in their ranks obediently agree to commit such acts of cruelty on other human beings?

Even though we humans are collectively more enlightened and more intelligent than any time in history, we are still seeing genocides and human depravity throughout the world.

Does this mean that we humans have a serious flaw? Social scientists have conducted several experiments and studies to find the answer to questions like this.

Specifically, three of these experiments revealed shocking and unexpected results. In my opinion, this is something that all human beings should review and consider — given the current unrest and violence, many of us are now witnessing.

Let us examine these three famous experiments and studies.

Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience to authority

Stanley Milgram's experiments

Stanley Milgram was a psychologist at Yale University. In 1961, to better understand the power of authority, he designed and conducted a series of experiments.

Subjects were chosen to apply a series of electrical shocks to victims strapped to a chair in an adjacent room. The voltage was increased with each shock. While the victim was out of sight, they could still be heard.

The subjects believed they were administering increasing powerful shocks to the victims, but what they heard were taped recordings of screams, as an actor banged on the wall. The exercise reached a point where everything in the other room went completely silent. This was when the subjects were ordered to give three 450-volt bursts of electrical shocks in succession to the silent victim.

In his very first set of experiments, Milgram found that 65% of all participants willingly administered the final series of electric shocks, even though most were not comfortable in doing so. However, there was a point where every participant would stop and question the experiment.

Only one single subject out of 40 vehemently refused to give any more shocks above the 300-volt level. Subsequent studies revealed that around two-thirds of all subjects inflicted what they believed to be fatal shocks under the orders of the experimenter.

Philip Zimbardo’s notorious Stanford prison experiment

Stanford prison experiment

Philip Zimbardo, a psychology professor from Stanford, chose to explore the human tendency toward brutality in the Stanford prison experiment. In this 1971 experiment, 21 undergraduates were meticulously selected because they were considered the most psychologically stable of all applicants. These subjects were to participate in a mock prison environment as either a prison guard or a prisoner.

Those chosen to be guards were given guard uniforms, mirrored sunglasses, and wooden batons — only to signify they were guards. Subjects chosen to be prisoners were given poorly fitting smocks and stocking caps. They were also referred to by their assigned number, and chains were placed around their ankles. All subjects fully understood that this was an experiment.

It all started when the prisoners were ‘arrested’ at their homes and taken to the mock prison. Then the prison guards fell into their roles, and they did so at a higher degree than anyone had anticipated.

Right from the start, the guards seemed to enjoy their authoritative status over the prisoners. Amazingly, by the experiment’s end, around one-third of the prison guards showed blatant sadistic tendencies. They enjoyed the act of inflicting pain and even felt pleasure from doing so, regardless of whether it meant other benefits for them.

This experiment revealed how impressionable and malleable the human personality really is, and how eagerly we embrace a role — given there is a plausible rationale along with an acceptable set of environmental, social structures. We must not forget that the participants in the Stanford experiment were among the most intelligent in the world. If they were susceptible to becoming sadists within weeks, what does that say about everyone else?

The Good Samaritan studies conducted at Princeton Theological Seminary

The Good Samaritan studies

Daniel Batson and John Darley of Princeton University designed and conducted the Good Samaritan studies. These experiments were structured to demonstrate how easily people are lured away from a good deed under trivial circumstances.

The studies used groups of seminary students who were directed to give a speech about either job opportunities or the Good Samaritan parable. Some were informed that they must hurry across the campus to give their talk; the rest were not told to hurry.

As the participants trekked towards the lecture site, they would pass a person slumped down in an alley, who needed help. Sadly, those students who had recently studied the Good Samaritan story didn’t stop any more often than students who prepared to speak about job opportunities. As far as the students in a hurry, only around 10% stopped to give aid, even those who were going to speak about the Good Samaritan.

Keep in mind that the subjects in these studies were being groomed to become future moral compasses in societies worldwide. They were not only susceptible to quickly abandoning their values, but even those who were prepared to speak about these values had also abandoned them.

Final Thoughts

The conclusions from these three experiments and studies were both troubling and disturbing. Whenever we read about an act of cruelty or neglect of another human being, we are quick to wonder how someone could do such a thing. These studies indicate that most of us would do such a thing under the right circumstances because the very best among us have already demonstrated this.

Human behavior is more influenced by the surrounding context than by moral character and values. The experiments demonstrated that moral character is not quite as important as we might want to believe.

Humans have shown the propensity to become sadists when it is required to fulfill a socially accepted role. Subjects proceeded to apply lethal voltages when directed, despite agonizing screams from their victims. Likewise, mock prison guards eagerly became sadistic within just a few days.

Genocides and human depravity will continue in the future. Once humans are exposed to an activity, others were follow — this will never change. This is why we have seen so many genocides since the end of the Second World War. It is a learned behavior.

Regardless of how enlightened we become as a society, there will always be elements that resort to evil and bloody tactics. Our focus should be on dealing with them whenever they occur — rather than trying to eliminate them.