Navajo Generation Station near Lake Powell, Arizona

Remote electrical generation

Imagine this strange but instructive scenario: You have to get a random person to commit an act of violence. How would you arrange things to make him follow through even though he knows he’s going to be hurting someone or destroying something—and doesn’t necessarily want to do so?

First, make it a physically simple task, like pushing a button. And put him in an enclosed room far from the person or animal he’ll be hurting or the forest he’ll be burning down and tell him as little as possible about the target of his violence. Show him that many other people will be pressing buttons just like his. If possible, make this destructive act just one in a long series that starts with smaller ones. Tell him that the destruction won’t happen right away—it’ll be delayed for some random amount of time, and he won’t know when it takes place. The final step would be for someone to pose as an authority figure, perhaps wearing a white lab coat or business suit, and tell the button pusher something like “You have to follow through. If you don’t, the whole system will fail.” 

Robert White-Stephens of the American Cyanamid Co. as he appeared on “CBS Report

Dr. Robert White-Stephens, telling us insecticides are safe

As I explain below, this situation is not nearly as unrealistic as it may seem. But will these conditions really make him more likely to inflict damage as ordered? Evidence comes from some of the most surprising, controversial, influential, and famous experiments in the history of psychology: Stanley Milgram’s classic studies of obedience in the 1960s.

Milgram wanted to understand the destructive obedience of soldiers in the German death camps from 1933 to 1945, when “millions of innocent people were systematically slaughtered on command.”[1] So he designed experiments to measure destructive obedience to authority. A volunteer (the “subject”) is assigned the role of teacher in a staged learning experiment and is told to administer increasingly severe electric shocks to a “learner.” The shocks are supposed to serve as punishment for incorrect answers and thus improve learning. But the learner isn’t actually a volunteer, as the subject is told. He’s an actor who only pretends to receive the shocks. The instructor verbally prods the subject whenever the latter resists giving stronger shocks. A label near the highest-voltage switches warns, “DANGER—SEVERE SHOCK.” The learner issues pleas beginning at 75 volts, when he grunts, rising to a verbal complaint at 120 volts. At 150 volts he says his heart is bothering him and demands to be released from the experiment. At 270 volts he begins to produce an “agonized scream.” 

The results were amazing and appalling. Sixty-five percent of the subjects complied with the experimenter’s instructions fully, shocking the learner all the way to the maximum level of 450 volts. Eighty percent of the subjects continued past the point when the learner complains of heart trouble and demands to be freed. 

The button of invisible consequences

The button of invisible consequences

Easy Damage

A storm of controversy swirled around the experiments because they seemed to show how easy it is to get people to do harm, they actively deceived naive volunteer subjects, and they exposed participants to emotionally grueling conditions.[2] Although the subjects were told after each experiment that no shocks had actually been administered, some experienced severe psychological reactions during the experiments, including signs of extreme tension, while delivering the most powerful shocks, ranging from sweats and trembling to nervous laughter and uncontrollable seizures (experienced by a remarkable number of the subjects across the experimental variations). Some volunteers believed they could be seriously injuring the “victim.”[3]

Immediately in this baseline version of the experiment, we can see a couple of the conditions that I outlined above regarding getting someone to perform knowingly destructive acts: an authority figure is present telling the subject to continue for the success of the project being carried out.

Remote Damage

But what about the other conditions, such as isolating the subject from the target of the harm? Milgram (and others) performed many variations on this experiment. The most relevant for our purposes are those of the “Proximity Series,” which altered the closeness of the learner to the subject across four experimental setups. In the most remote condition the learner is in a separate room and makes no vocal complaint and the subject can’t see him, but at 300 volts, the “laboratory walls resound as he pounds in protest.” After 315 volts the victim no longer answers questions, and the pounding ceases. In the next version, the victim is in a separate room, but his complaints can be clearly heard through the walls. The third puts the victim in the same room as the subject, a few feet away, thus making him visible as well as audible. In the final variation the victim gets a shock only when his hand rests on a shock plate. At the 150-volt level, he demands to be set free and refuses to put his hand on the plate. The experimenter then orders the subject to force the victim’s hand onto the plate, requiring the subject to have physical contact with the victim above 150 volts.[4]

Obedience rates (the percentage of subjects who obeyed the experimenter fully and delivered all shocks up to the highest level) fell significantly as the subject became closer to the victim—from 65 percent in the most remote condition to 30 percent in the most proximate one.[5] So, the more isolated someone is from undesired consequences, the more willing he or she is to choose the destructive path, even in full knowledge of the outcomes, as I describe in the opening vignette. The subjects knew that they were delivering painful, possibly dangerous shocks (or thought they were).

May 1944 Jews from Carpathian Ruthenia arrive at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Train arriving at Auschwitz concentration camp

Milgram noted that modern bureaucrats can arrange it so that only the most callous are directly involved in the violence. Others can schedule trains to the concentration camps or synthesize the gas for the chambers. The political scientist Timothy Pachirat notes that in a large meatpacking plant where he worked, only about eight of the eight hundred workers at the plant ever saw the cattle alive and or being killed.[6]

As I discuss in chapter 3 of Invisible Nature: Healing the Destructive Divide between People and the Environment,[7] the obedience experiments, combined with various others and supported by psychological theory, confirm that being further removed from the consequences of our choices makes the destructive path more acceptable. The situations we find ourselves in may influence us to act against our own values, to the detriment not only of others but of our own emotional well-being. In the obedience experiments, the conflict between values and behavior resulted in physiological symptoms such as sweating and uncontrollable seizures.

We must ask ourselves, Do typical situations in modern life lead us to make environmentally harmful choices against our own ethics and values? If so, do we suffer ill psychological symptoms as a result? I’ll address the second question in a future post.

The Power of Situations Over Values

Situations are at work all the time in our daily lives. Perhaps you know about global climate change and even about some of the many problems it causes, and maybe you want to reduce your burden on the planet. Meanwhile, you’re bombarded with ads to buy a new car (and just the manufacture of a car makes a large global-warming impact). In the United States car companies have for decades been pushing large, consumptive vehicles because they return the highest profit margins. SUVs and muscle trucks dominate many American parking lots and streets. The two main candidates in the 2012 US presidential election, Romney and Obama, at times seemed to be competing over who would drill for more oil, implying there’s no urgent climate change problem. Commercials, peer choices, elected officials—all seem to condone choices that conflict with your values. You buy. Your environmental values take a back seat in your roomy new vehicle.

Gas guzzling vehicles

Our love affair with consumption

This situation I describe at the beginning of this post—to get someone to commit an act of destruction—may sound bizarre, but is it really so different from what happens in our everyday lives? Authority figures—economists, presidents, titans of industry—tell us to carry on and buy more to make ourselves happier and to stimulate the economy for the common good. We see everyone else doing the same thing. The consequences happen elsewhere, outside of our immediate experiences. And it keeps getting easier: the click of a mouse button delivers a new cookware set to our door.

The damages happen far away, to nature and people we never see: pollution from the mining waste, global warming gasses released into the atmosphere, flooding and drought brought on by climate change. In chapter 1 of Invisible Nature, I describe the untold health and environmental impacts of our addiction to high-tech electronics. They happen out of sight and thus seem unreal.

Even the part about creating an artificial situation to get us to harm someone isn’t particularly unusual. Military trainers alienate their trainees from the people they harm as a well-worn tactic to facilitate violence. To get a soldier to kill or an “operative” to torture someone, the superior officer creates distance between the killer and the victim—any kind of distance: physical, psychic, social. Soldiers are taught to create social distance by dehumanizing their victim, referring to them with derogative or impersonal terms—such as “the enemy”—and thinking of them as wholly different from themselves. Physical distance works well. It’s emotionally easier to drop a bomb that might kill several people from a jet high in the sky than to shoot someone with a gun while you look into her eyes. It’s easier still to drop bombs from a drone aircraft operated via a video-game-like console in a remote location, as I describe in my first post on this blog.

More to Come

This post is the first of a few in which I’ll explain the psychology behind why it matters that the environmental (and other) consequences of our daily actions happen out of sight. I hope you’ll subscribe and follow the conversation.

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[1] Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View, (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), p. 1.

[2] Miller, Arthur G., Barry E. Collins, and Diana E. Brief. “Perspectives on Obedience to Authority: The Legacy of the Milgram Experiments.” Journal of Social Issues 51, no. 3 (1995), p. 1–19; Thomas Blass, “Understanding Behavior in the Milgram Obedience Experiment: The Role of Personality, Situations, and Their Interactions,” Journal of Personality & Social Psychology 60, no. 3 (1991), pp. 88–89, 398.

[3] Stanley Milgram, “Behavioral-Study of Obedience,” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 67, no. 4 (1963), p. 375; Blass, “Understanding Behavior in the Milgram Obedience Experiment,” pp. 398–99. Subjects were observed sweating, trembling, stuttering, biting their lips, groaning, digging their fingernails into their flesh, and smiling and laughing nervously. In four of the experimental conditions, fifteen subjects experienced full-blown, uncontrollable seizures. Stanley Milgram, “Some Conditions of Obedience and Disobedience to Authority,” Human Relations 18, no. 1 (1965), p. 68.

[4] Milgram, Obedience to Authority, pp. 32–34.

[5] Milgram, Obedience to Authority, pp. 34–36.

[6] Timothy Pachirat, Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight, Yale Agrarian Studies Series (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011), pp. 238–40.

[7] Kenneth Worthy, Invisible Nature: Healing the Destructive Divide between People and the Environment (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2013).

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