Shocking research
by Jessa Slade on January 12th, 2009

Currently working on: Transcribing chicken scratching longhand notes
Mood: Perplexed — I wrote this?!?

I was never much interested in the question “Why do bad things happen to good people?” It seemed obvious to me: Well, s**t happens.

More confusing was “Why do good people do bad things?” As if I could answer that question when generations of theologians, psychiatrists and weeping mothers haven’t. But poking at it was part of the genesis for SEDUCED BY SHADOWS, the first book of The Marked Souls which comes out in October. In the series, my heroes are possessed by repentant demons. I started reading about demons in mythology and the world’s major belief systems as well as the “demons” of purely human cruelty — genocide, serial murder, mental disorders, slavery.

But I thought those demons seemed a little removed from people like you and me. I mean, most of us will (hopefully!) go through our lives without ever needing a Roman Catholic exorcism. (But if you do, check out Malachi Martin’s Hostage to the Devil: The Possession and Exorcism of Five Contemporary Americans. Not precisely a DIY manual and critics argue the veracity, but it’s a fascinating read.) Most of those metaphorical demons feel safely confined to foreign news programs and made-for-TV movies. Then I remembered a psychological study we learned about in high school.

In Milgram’s 1961 social psych experiment, begun just three months after the start of Adolph Eichmann’s trial as a Nazi war criminal, volunteers were told to administer electric shocks in increasing 15-volt increments to other research subjects when questions on a verbal test were answered inaccurately. The shockees were actually accomplices to the researchers and the shocks were fake. But the volunteers didn’t know that.

Shocking (pun intended) factoid:
Despite simulated screams of pain from the “victim,” 65% of the volunteers continued to administer shocks to the 450-volt maximum (labeled ‘Danger: Severe Shock’ on the board the volunteers used). Only one volunteer stopped before 300 volts. A more recent version of the study (updated, ironically, to decrease potential post-experiment stress on the volunteers doing the shocking) found essentially the same percentages of people willing to pull the trigger on their fellows. If everyone tells their friends and family about this study, maybe the next time researchers perform this experiment, I bet we can lower the percentages a point or two.

It was a study about response to authority, to a voice telling you to do something that you know is wrong. What interested me was the quickness and completeness with which people gave up their brains, hearts and souls to someone else. The volunteers weren’t monsters. They weren’t serial killers or sadists or Enron execs in training. They were regular, normal people — people like you and me.

Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram in his 1974 book about the study, “Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View,” said: Ordinary people…can become agents in a terrible destructive process. If this is so, then perhaps the opposite is true: Ordinary people can become warriors against destruction.

The heroes of my stories wield the power of the repentant demons to save the world. Have you ever had a little voice inside you — good or bad — influencing you? Did you listen?

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14 comments to “Shocking research”

  1. 1

    Good morning. Very interesting post and one I have not thought much about. I always talk to myself, but its more after the fact of doing something stupid. I berate myself for my idiotic judgement, Maybe if I had the angel and devil on my shoulder thing during instead of after I would be safer :)

  2. 2

    I have a really loud conscience, and yes, I listen.

    And that is some crazy and shocking (literally!) research! Yikes.

  3. 3

    Sometimes the voice inside pulls me in two different directions. I would like to think I make the right choice/decision more often than not.

  4. 4

    I can’t even imagine people hurting other people for a study or for entertainment.

    Interesting blog and I love the premise of the repentant demons. Sounds like they would make very sexy heroes!

  5. 5

    I think the incident that most eats at me, that made me realize I had acted the sheep in the face of power, was when I was a reporter at my college paper. I covered a controversial event (which I won’t get into here since I might offend someone) and the leader/speaker said something inflammatory and possibly illegal. Later, he came up to me and apologized, said he was carried away by the spirit of the gathering. I think it was an evil spirit :evil: Anyway, I downplayed his comments in my article. In retrospect, I wish I’d blasted him. Maybe that was me being :evil: (Aren’t these emoticons handy today?) Or was I distracted by :evil: ? It’s not always easy to know — much less DO — the right thing.

  6. 6

    Uh, voices in my head? You bet. Too many to count. Oh, you mean good versus evil.

    I can’t imagine doing this either–but the scary thing is, the majority of people did it quite willingly, believing they were doing the correct thing.

    Very thought provoking post, Jessa.

  7. 7

    [...] more about the experiment and leave a comment at Silk And Shadows for your chance to win a prize the week of [...]

  8. 8

    That study is just so disturbing, and frightening, too. We might think we’d never act in a certain way, but until we find ourselves in certain situations, we can never be entirely sure. It’s a part of being human we all need to think about when we craft our characters.

  9. 9

    That is quite interesting research. And rather scary.

  10. 10

    I’ve heard of those experiments. We all think we would not respond that way (at least I hope we do), but who knows. It seems if we do not react immediately to a situation, action isn’t taken. Violence/accidents happen and people just stand around watching expecting/waiting for someone else to respond. Why? What is the quote – The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. Have I heard a voice, yes. We have been involved in 2 child neglect cases and one animal cruelty case. Get involved with your community and stay involved. We are responsible for the society we live in and should do all we can to make it a good one.

  11. 11

    Sadly, I’ve seen this in action with traffic accidents. A crowd gathers, but no one wants to break ranks and get involved. People are fine as soon as someone makes the first move to fix a situation, but it takes a lot of courage to go against the herd.

  12. 12

    Interesting post. It is sad to say but we all mean well in our life and we try to live life to the fullest but there are times we will all do something bad and not think about it until after you have done it.

  13. 13

    I remember learning about this experiment when I was a Psychology student in the 70′s. Later I read the repeat of the experiment. I think that most people spend little to no time determining where there personal ethics lie. Then when they are confronted with an ethical situation and are forced to act, they don’t have time to think it through. They believe that going with an authority figure will give them cover, or at least good self-rationalization. Alas, I wish people were more often forced to examine their personal ethics beginning in elementary school and continuing through college.

  14. 14

    Interesting post. I talk to myself when trying to make decisions but I never really though about it being listening to my good side or bad side. Guess I will have to listen closer next time.

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