Bufka: The integrity of one’s virtue

Manure, a fan, two experiments, and two questions.

Milgram’s Electric Box
Photo by Isabelle Adam

by Karen Bufka

The “manure” hits the fan in our world on a regular basis.  The Powers That Be have a menu of juicy possible “manure” which they might inflict on us next.  We do not have any control over what they’ll serve up, but we do have control over how we behave when it hits the fan. 

Beginning in 1961, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted experiments to measure people’s willingness to obey an authority figure even when that authority figure asked them to do things which went against their personal conscience.  The study’s participants were told that they were assisting in an experiment to study the effect of punishment on learning and memory, but the experiment was really about what they would do when told to punish another person.  The participant was in one room and a “learner”—an actor, but the participant didn’t know that— was strapped into a chair in a separate room.  The participant knew the other person was strapped in, and could hear him but not see him.  The person leading the experiment was dressed in a lab coat.

The experimenter wearing the lab coat gave the participant a list of word pairs to “teach” the person strapped into the chair in the other room.  When the “learner”—the actor strapped into the chair—answered incorrectly, the participant had to give him an electric shock, the voltage gradually increasing from 15 to 450 volts.  The shock generator said on it: “Slight Shock” up to “Danger: Severe Shock”.  No actual shock was administered, but the participant didn’t know that; they thought that when they pressed the button, the person strapped into the chair in the other room received an electric shock, with voltages increasing in severity up to a dangerous level.

65% of the participants zapped the unseen person in the other room with 450 volts and 100% of the participants went up to 300 volts despite the noises— pleading, banging on the wall, etc.— heard from the other room.  And, the eventual ominous silence from the other room.  The participants showed signs of emotional discomfort, tension and stress when told to administer the shocks, but they did it when the person in the lab coat told them to.

Milgram, the psychologist who performed the experiment later said, “The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.  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.”

In the 1950s, Solomon Asch studied the effects of peer pressure, conducting experiments to see if people would conform to group opinion even when that opinion conflicted with the evidence of their own senses.  Groups of eight male college students were shown two cards, one with a single line on it, and a second with lines of different lengths labeled A, B and C.  Each student had to say which of the three lines—A, B or C— matched the single line on the first card..

All of the students in the group except one—the actual subject of the study— were actors, previously instructed to respond sometimes with the correct, matching line and sometimes with an incorrect, shorter or longer line.  Only the student who was the subject of the study was seeing the cards and the different lengths of the lines on them and assessing them for themselves, but they didn’t know that; they thought the other students were their peers in this way.

Seating was arranged so that the subject was always the last to give his answer, which meant that when the other students—the actors—gave the wrong answers they were instructed beforehand to give, saying that lines were matching in length which obviously weren’t, this person had to choose to trust their own eyes and go against what some or all of the other people said, or go along with the group even though they could see that what the group was saying was wrong.

36.8% of the students making their own assessment of the cards agreed with what the actors in the rest of the group said even when it was obviously wrong.  Only 25% of the students were willing to consistently contradict the group’s incorrect answer.  75% of participants agreed at least once with the wrong answer given by the rest of the group— despite the evidence of their own eyes.

What will you do the next time the “manure” hits the fan and you are told what to do by an authority figure and pressured by your peers to do it?  Will you go against your conscience and the evidence of your own experience, doing what you are told or pressured to do, or will you stay true to your conscience and hold fast to your personal integrity?  Our world needs each of us to be a person of conscience, our best expression of impeccable humanity,  even if we stand alone.

The author is a St. Johnsbury resident.

Categories: Commentary

7 replies »

  1. I recall learning of the first experiment in a first-year college psychology class and I was appalled by it back then as a kid. It certainly holds true today – no further replication necessary, as “real world” life in these United States tells us all we need to know.

    And if you can convince the masses to believe that males can become females, and females can become males – you can convince them of anything. And they have.

    • “Those who can make you believe in absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”

  2. You know who doesn’t fall for the gibberish? People with faith in the Lord. You can protect yourselves and your family. Electing Godly leaders that seek to serve rather than being served can protect us all. Like Oliver Anthony says, “wanna know what you think, know what you do, don’t think that you know but i know that you do.” This is tyranny vs. liberty…..which side are you on?

  3. The next time that the “manure” hits the fan, I will continue to do what I have always done, which is to “stay true to my conscience and hold fast to my personal integrity.” I honestly don’t know what I would do if faced with a life-or-death situation and I hope it never comes to that.

  4. I remember another experiment. The room in a social situation was gradually filled with smoke — and the vast majority of the time, the subject ignored the smoke as long as everybody else did! Sometimes, they had to end the experiment because the smoke reached an unsafe level and the subject had yet to investigate the cause of the smoke. I told myself I would never be that person, which has led to many uncomfortable and awkward situations. It’s a constant battle to be OK with going against the flow.