December 14, 2003

How far would you go?

Posted at 07:59 AM Written

I wrote the following... to characterise it? I won't. I wrote the following in a forum of mine created specifically for it. I was hoping it would generate some traffic, some thoughtful input. At least, more than it has so far.

You are asked to participate in a study of the effects punishment has on learning. You will be the teacher and a second test subject will be the learner. The learner is strapped to a chair and attached to a device which will, at your command, administer electrical shocks in a range from 15 volts up to 450 volts.

As you interact with your learner, attempting to teach simple lessons, the learner will, from time to time, respond incorrectly. As a consequence of each error, the learner will receive a shock from the device, administered by you. The shock will increase by 15 volts for every error beginning with 15V for the initiall incorrect answer, 30V for the second and so on.

The question is, how far would you go?

After just a few errors, the learner complains of discomfort. Would you stop there?

A little further on, the learner is yelping quite loudly with every shock, and begins complaining that the heart condition he'd mentioned earlier seems to be acting up. Would you stop here?

Perhaps you suggest to the experimenter that the learner seems to be in significant discomfort. Perhaps it's time to stop? "No," the experimenter says, "the experiment requires you to continue." Do you?

Not more than a few shocks later the learner writhes and screams with every shock. He demands to be let out of the experiment. Do you stop now?

"I don't think I can do this any longer," you say to the experimenter, who replies, "Of course, you will be paid whether you continue or not, but we really do need to get the results of this trial." Do you stop now?

By the time the shock level is above 300V the learner refuses to participate any longer. Do you stop?

"The failure to enter an response at all," says the experimenter, "must be considered an incorrect answer." Do you stop?

The final three shock levels are labelled "XXX -- Extreme Shock." Do you stop before reaching them?

You are wringing your hands, pounding your head with your fists; sweat beads, runs in rivulets down your forehead. You are in obvious distress over administering these shocks to a helpless individual. Indeed, your agony is only exceeded by the learner's, who begs you to stop as he anticipates the shock to come. "Please continue," the experimenter says, firmly, though without any threat. Do you disobey now?

You have administered 450 volts, the highest possible level of shock, to the learner, who was unconscious and unable to respond to your question.There seems to be nowhere else to go. You have reached the end. "Continue the experiment, please, and administer 450V shocks for every incorrect answer." It is not over. Do you stop?

You have just administered the third shock at 450V. The learner is inert. "OK," the experimenter says, "that is all the data we need."

You may stop now.

An authority has told you to.


Presently thinking about:
Obedience to Authority, Stanley Milgram

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