Monday, January 12, 2009


1963 and it was the wild west days of psych testing when CIA scientists were still feeding LSD to unsuspecting test subjects as part of their studies on mind control. Along came psychologist Stanley Milgram who was wondering if it was possible that all the Nazis who perpetrated the Holocaust were really just following orders - as opposed to being, you know, evil sons of bitches.

Milgram set up his (in)famous electroshock experiment where he got test subjects to electrocute a "learner" (actually an actor, unbeknownst to the test subjects) whenever the learner answered a question incorrectly. Each individual test subject was guided by an authority figure, in this case a "scientist", who required the test subject to increase the shock voltage with each successive wrong answer from the learner. Milgram wanted to see if the test subject would blindly follow orders from a superior by continuing to electrocute the learner despite the obvious pain and terror the learner displayed as the voltages increased and despite the highly questionable morality of the whole situation.

Many of the test subjects protested but still continued to increase voltages and apply shocks to the learner. In the end, Milgram found that 65% of the test subjects were willing to crank up the dial to the full 450 V. This test was repeated several times in different locales with different groups of people and the findings were fairly consistent. 61% - 66% of people were willing to electrocute another human being if they felt they were being asked to do so by a figure of authority.

Some researchers wondered if perhaps the test subjects in the Milgram experiment somehow guessed that the learner was faking it so they reproduced the test using a real victim: a puppy. Despite the screams of pain from the puppy being electrocuted and the distress within the test subjects who were doing the electrocuting, 20 out of 26 of the test subjects fully complied.

Contrast this with a similar experiment done on rhesus monkeys.

From "Neither Victims Nor Perpetrators: Beyond Animal Sacrifice" by Gary Kowalski

In this experiment, rhesus monkeys, also known as macaques, were confined in a laboratory where they were trained to receive food by pulling on one of two chains, right or left, depending on the color of a flashing light. After they had properly learned the sequence, another monkey was introduced, visible through a one-way mirror and held in restraints. By pulling the chains in the correct fashion, the first monkey could still get his snack, but one of the chains now delivered a powerful electric shock to the other animal whose agony was in plain view. In effect, animals who refused to deliver the shock were cut to starvation rations. Trapped in this situation, it was discovered that most of the monkeys would not cooperate. In one experiment, only 13% would deliver the shock--87% chose to go hungry instead. One of the animals refused to pull either of the chains and went without food for twelve days rather than hurting its companion. The experimenters, who were interested in learning whether kinship plays a role in altruistic behavior, found that unrelated macaques were just as likely to be spared as those who were genetically similar. Only one variable really seemed to predict how the animal would respond to the dilemma. Monkeys who had been shocked in previous experiments themselves were even less willing to pull the chain and subject others to such torment.

So all that happened in the Sixties and maybe you're thinking that was a real long time ago and back then it was quite possible that monkeys really were better than humans and that we're way smarter and ethical now and that type of stupidly blind behaviour could never happen again what with all our independent thinking and our rebellious ways and our MTV generation awareness and iPod hip savvy and internet access to information.

In 2006, Jerry M. Burger, repeated Milgram's experiments.

Seventy adults participated in a replication of Milgram's Experiment 5 up to the point at which they first heard the learner's verbal protest (150 volts). Because 79%of Milgram's participants who went past this point continued to the end of the shock generator's range, reasonable estimates could be made about what the present participants would have done if allowed to continue. Obedience rates in the 2006 replication were only slightly lower than those Milgram found 45 years earlier.

That means that more than half the people you see walking by you on the street would electrocute you for no other reason than because they were told to do so by someone they considered an authority figure.

Say hello to the modern man.

But what does any of this have to do with dogs? Well, it goes a long to explaining why something like breed specific legislation has gained such wide acceptance despite the overwhelming evidence against its usefulness, never mind the questionable ethics behind such laws. It's because people are told to accept them and the majority blindly follow. It explains why Pit Bulls in the last decade have suddenly become known as evil monsters instead of victimized dogs. It's because people are told to believe those stereotypes and the majority blindly do just that. It explains why millions of dogs are still being killed annually in North American public shelters despite the fact that there could be alternatives for many of them. It's because people are told it's the right thing to do. People are told there is no other way. People are told it's for the best and so they blindly without question continue to kill dogs.

We're still worse than monkeys.


shel said...

A powerful post Fred, that sadly explains a lot.

Unfortunately, it's taken major attention from outside the rescue industry to pressure shelters to snap out of this 'there's no other way' trance.

The best thing agitators can do now is keep on keeping on.

Ian said...

Great Post
The comparison with what has happened to Pit Bulls the last decade or so is so apt.
The unthinking mob mentality really has taken over.
That was very apparent with your postings about Jere Alexander and the recent comment you received.
It`s easy to see how atrocities like the holocaust can happen.
People must step up and question when things just don`t seem right.

Joanne said...

The original study was interesting in that some people complied with the orders fully and others refused at some point, but more interesting is why those who complied did so and those who refused did so.
The post interviews revealed some interesting things. For example, they interviewed a priest who had gone the full 450 volts. When asked if he felt bad about it, he said, essentially, "Not even remotely." In his view, he was simply obeying the orders of the experimenter. He felt that the experimenter bore responsibility and there was no reason for him to feel bad.
This revelation warrants a great deal more investigation BUT if that is not hugely interesting. Monkeys have a more empathetic and compassionate nature and are less willing to inflict pain on their peers than a priest. Wrap your head around that tidbit of information...

deakat said...

Thanks for this. I had not heard about the replication of the experiment with macaques.

MichelleD said...

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities - Voltaire