A recent conversation with one of my friends keeps coming back to me. We were talking about the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. With the death toll at 4,700 and counting, people have started to raise their concerns on how it is being handled, on whether people of authorities are overstepping their boundaries. These concerns are met with just as vociferous voices by Duterte’s avid supporters. Their points of contention go along the lines of “it’s the vigilantes doing the killing, not the police” or “it’s people involved in the drug trade silencing each other” or “the police are simply acting on self-defense”. They have even gone as far as to aggressively attack institutions like the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), accusing the latter of colluding with vested interests, acting on behalf of political opponents who want to oust President Duterte, and of taking the side of criminals instead of the hapless victims.
This particular friend of mine was telling me that we should let the police do their job, that we have nothing to worry about, that only those involved in drugs would go as far as to kill suspected drug personalities, in the interest of covering up their own a$$es. “We should trust our government and stop questioning them,” he said. “You’re saying that because you do not have a deep understanding of human nature,” I responded.
What was I alluding to? What is it about human nature that we need to worry about? Why are the likes of CHR, institutions that provide checks and balances on authorities, vital to the health of our democracy and to the well-being of the citizens?
Stop for a moment to ponder on these questions: “If a local version of the German Nazi were to happen, would you readily acquiesce to the orders of a tyrant and do atrocious crimes, just as the Germans did under Hitler’s rule?” Your instant answer may be a resounding “No”. But lessons from Social Psychology say otherwise.
The Milgram Obedience Experiment
In 1961, the Jewish American psychologist Stanley Milgram pondered on whether people would be capable of cruelty if so ordered. Under what conditions would people obey an authority figure who is making questionable orders? He was wondering how Nazi Germany managed to conceive and implement the unimaginable slaughter of 6 million Jews. The evil acts were made possible because thousands of people did their part: herding prisoners into trains, taking them into the “showers” where they were poisoned with gas, etc. How could these people commit such horrifying deeds? Were they even normal at all?
Milgram further wondered whether someone could force the average European or North American to perform cruel acts. Most people guessed not, counting on their individualistic, democratic, humane values to enable them to resist pressure. Milgram opted to find answers through a series of experiments he set up at Yale University. He started the experiments in July 1961, three months after the trial of the German Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann commenced.
The experiment played out this way: Two men come to the psychology laboratory purportedly to take part in a study of learning and memory. An experimenter wearing a lab coat explains to the two men that their goal is to study the effects of punishment on learning, and that one of them would be a teacher and the other would be a learner. The teacher would be providing a list of word pairs and would have to punish the learner for every wrong word pairing or answer. They then draw slips out of a hat for their role assignment. One of the two men, a genial 47-year-old accountant, is actually the experimenter’s confederate, and the draw lots are rigged so that the other man, the only actual experiment subject always gets assigned the role of the teacher.
The task of the teacher is to punish the learner for every mistake he makes. He would be using a “shock generator” with switches that range from 15 to 450 volts, and that are assigned labels that say “Slight Shock,” “Very Strong Shock,” “Danger: Severe Shock,” up until the highest voltage labeled XXX. The experimenter instructs the teacher to move one level higher in their delivery of the shocks everytime the learner makes a mistake. The learner is taken to another room and the teacher watches as the experimenter straps him into a chair where an electrode is attached to his wrist. This is all just for show though as no actual shock is delivered. When finally out of sight, the learner takes out an equipment that elicits prerecorded audio responses to different intensities of the shocks, from a simple grunt to screams of agony and explicit requests to be taken out of the experiment, including reminding people of his “heart problem” and pretending to have lost consciousness.
How far would the subjects of the experiment go? Psychiatrists predicted that only about one percent would proceed to 450 volts or XXX on the shock panel, in reference to the fact that only one percent of Americans were sadists.
The first of the series of experiments were conducted on 40 men who responded to newspaper ads. They were from varied vocations or professions and were within the age range of 20 to 50 years old. The result was dismaying … 65 percent of the participants went all the way up to the maximum of 450 volts. Those who stopped mostly did so at 150 volts when the learner’s protestations had started to be very worrisome.
Many of the experiment’s subjects expressed discomfort over what they were doing, but continued anyway. People were shocked to see how the subjects could act against the dictates of their conscience at the simple prodding of a man in a white coat!
Standford Prison Experiment
Stanley Milgrams’s experiment gave us a glimpse of how people readily submit to the orders of people of “authority”, even if it means major discomfort for them, even if the person giving out the orders is no more than an experimenter in a white coat! Now let’s take a look at another revealing experiment conducted by Philip Zimbardo, a former classmate of Milgram, and a man who comes from the same neighborhood Milgram grew up in – the inner city of Bronx. Zimbardo has always been curious about what makes people crossover to the dark side and commit crimes or abuses against their fellow human beings.
“Philosophers, dramatists, theologians have grappled with this question for centuries: what makes people go wrong? Interestingly, I asked this question when I was a little kid. I grew up in the South Bronx, inner-city ghetto in New York, and I was surrounded by evil, as all kids are who grew up in an inner city. And I had friends who were really good kids, who lived out the Dr. Jekyll Mr. Hyde scenario — Robert Louis Stevenson. That is, they took drugs, got in trouble, went to jail. Some got killed, and some did it without drug assistance. – Philip Zimbardo, Psychologist”
In 1971, the psychologist Philip Zimbardo decided to conduct the Stanford Prison Experiment, an experiment that aimed to see what happens to good people when you put them in a bad place. College men volunteered to be part of a simulated prison created in the Psychology department of Stanford University. After undergoing a battery of psychological tests, the volunteers were narrowed down to 18 participants deemed mentally healthy. By a flip of a coin, they were assigned roles of either a prison guard or a prisoner. The “prison guards” were provided with khaki uniforms (for deindividuation), dark glasses (Zimbardo’s means of hiding their eyes and dehumanizing them), and batons and whistles (to symbolize power). The prisoners were made to wear humiliating and “feminizing” hospital-gown-like outfits, and to undergo a realistic arrest and a dehumanizing delousing process. They were supposed to run the experiment for two weeks. But after a day of jovial role-playing, things quickly turned for the worse. The prison guards increasingly became abusive or tolerant of the abuse, and the prisoners either had a nervous breakdown or became increasingly obedient, losing their identity in the process as they increasingly identified less with their names and more with their prison number and their role as a prisoner. As a matter of fact, all the experiment participants, including Zimbardo who played the role of a prison superintendent, started to lose grasp of reality as they became increasingly engrossed in their made-up roles! They had to end the experiment after only six days.
“There developed a growing confusion between reality and illusion, between roleplaying and self-identity. . . . This prison which we had created . . . was absorbing us as creatures of its own reality.” – Philip Zimbardo
Zimbardo concluded that it is not always the bad apples that ruin the whole bunch in a barrel, but the barrel itself. If we want to cure society of its ills, we have to go beyond just the “problematic” individuals and address institutional flaws. He further concludes:
“So you need a paradigm shift in all of these areas. The shift is away from the medical model that focuses only on the individual. The shift is toward a public health model that recognizes situational and systemic vectors of disease. Bullying is a disease. Prejudice is a disease. Violence is a disease. Since the Inquisition, we’ve been dealing with problems at the individual level. It doesn’t work.”
Institutions that provide checks and balances and criticisms by people against their government are essential for a healthy democracy.
“If you give people power without oversight, it is a prescription for abuse.” – Philip Zimbardo
Moreover, we should keep the conversation constructive and free of hatred and divisiveness … for no, it is not all that difficult to make ordinary people crossover into the dark side, nor is it difficult to turn a crowd into a mob of frenzy violence.
Author: Tahna de Veyra
Voracious eater. Coffee dependent. Book sniffer. Music addict. Profound thinker. Certified ambivert. Life-hungry maverick. Nonchalant realist. Hesitant blogger.