Good people making bad choices is something that many of us struggle to fathom. I mean, surely if they were ‘good’ then they would ultimately go with their better judgement. Good people uphold values such as human dignity, even when it’s tough. World War II was when this phenomenon really came into the public eye, as the world struggled to accept that all Germans were not monsters. In fact, the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the person directly responsible for Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’, found that many of the war criminals standing before them were mild-mannered, courteous people.
And the moment any psychological phenomenon becomes interesting, writers tend to perk up and listen. Does this relate to my character? Maybe this is why he did what he did? Or if you’re anything like me, how could I tie this into a ‘what if’ question for a future concept? Could it be the something that my readers will mull over long after they’ve finished?
Well, let me tell you a story. Those of you that have heard of Milgram’s experiments on obedience will recognise the scenario I’m about to dramatize (I’ve taken the Milgram’s procedure and brought it to life with the help of some fictional characters), for others, you’re about to discover what the average person is capable of.
When Ben saw the ad for a learner experiment, he read it twice.
“Surely it can’t be that simple,’ he thought, ‘you’re basically getting paid to turn up!”
But that’s exactly what the typed page on the university noticeboard said. Thinking of Emily and their upcoming anniversary, the prospect of some easy cash was enticing.
When Ben turned up, he was introduced to Geoff. Geoff was middle-aged, and kind of mild-mannered looking with his glasses and round belly. The experimenter, this guy tall and serious looking with his white lab coat and clipboard, held out the tip of two straws. It seemed the person that drew the short-straw would be the learner, and the other, the teacher. Ben had never done any teaching, but he wasn’t keen on drawing the short-straw just because…well, it’s the short-straw.
His relief when his red straw drew out and was twice the length of Geoff’s had his tension easing. He gave Geoff an apologetic smile, to which Geoff responded with an affable one of his own. The experimenter, Ben couldn’t remember whether he introduced himself, took Geoff to a chair. Geoff had a few minutes to read a piece of paper before the experimenter strapped him into it.
Geoff looked down at the metal straps holding his arms down, and Ben watched as the experimenter smeared electrode paste before attaching electrodes. “The paste is to prevent burning and blistering.”
Geoff smiled in gratitude. “I have a heart condition, I thought I’d let you know.”
The experimenter continued with the paste and the electrodes. “Although the shocks may be painful, they won’t cause any permanent tissue damage.”
Ben’s shoulders felt a little tense. This was a little more…well…medical that he’d imagined. But the experimenter was calm and collected as he came took Ben to an adjacent room. Ben was confident he knew what he was doing.
Ben took a seat and the experimenter pointed to a dial and some buttons before him. “You’re going to ask Geoff some questions. We want to test his memory.”
Ben nodded. Seemed straightforward enough.
“If Geoff makes a mistake, I want you to administer progressively larger shocks to Geoff each time.”
Ben frowned at the dials. Their descriptors had words like Slight, Moderate, Strong, Intense, Extreme Intensity and Danger: Severe Shock. “Okay.”
The experimenter held an electrode to Ben’s arm. “This is 45 volts.”
The tingling buzz was a shock, but not painful. Ben mentally shook himself, he was being silly. The experimenter knew what he was doing, and this was probably important.
Geoff got the first few questions correct. But then he started making some errors. Very soon, Ben was dialling up to 75 volts and Geoff was grunting in pain. He looked at the experimenter, discomfort making him shift in his seat.
The experimenter made some notes in his clipboard. “Please continue.”
Ben pulled in a steadying breath and asked the next question. At 120 volts, Geoff shouted that the shocks were becoming painful. Uneasiness was making Ben’s hand tremble. He turned to the experimenter. “I think…I think we shouldn’t go any higher.”
“The experiment requires you to continue.”
Ben turned back to the dial. Maybe Geoff wouldn’t get too many more wrong. At 150 volts Geoff demanded to be released from the experiment. At 180 volts he cried out that he couldn’t stand it any longer. Ben was now sweating, each show of pain from Geoff had his teeth gritting and his chest constricting. “We need to stop.
The experimenter shook his head. “It is absolutely essential that you continue.”
Ben looked at Geoff, who was now panting. He looked down at his hand wrapped around the dial. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
Geoff continued to cry out at each shock. By the time the dial was at 250 volts, he was crying out in agony. At 300 volts Geoff stopped responding to the cue words. The experimenter told Ben to treat these as a wrong answer.
Ben shot up from his chair. “This is wrong,” he shouted. “We’re hurting him!”
The experimenter’s gaze was steely. “You have no other choice but continue.”
Ben hovered; half standing, wanting to run; half sitting, and hating himself for it. This was wrong. He wasn’t someone that does this to people. What would Emily think of this all?
But he had no choice. The authority figure standing beside him, unyielding and demanding, had said so.
Disgust and dread stung the back of Ben’s throat as he notched the dial up to Extreme Intensity. He pretended he didn’t hear Geoff’s scream as he pressed the button…
Now, I wonder if you’re empathising with Ben’s discomfort, but secure in the knowledge that you would be different?
What Ben didn’t know is that Geoff was a confederate, an actor and accomplice, to one of the most famous experiments into obedience to authority. There was no shock, no pain, no deadly electrical current. The experimenter knew this, as did Geoff.
Ben, on the other hand, had just shown us what the average-Joe was capable of.
When they first devised this experiment, Milgram and his researchers predicted that no more than 20% of normal, psychologically balanced human beings would comply with the direction to continue shocking the learner past 135 volts. They predicted no one would continue past 255 volts.
What they found was that 65% of participants continued to the highest level of 450 volts, and all the participants continued to at least 300 volts. Milgram’s experiment has been replicated in multiple countries, with males and females, and across different settings. Milgram felt safe to conclude that the average person could be directed to commit horrific acts if obeying an accepted authority figure.
Once you’ve processed what this means for ourselves and humanity, you’ll start considering what this could mean for a character and a story world. Did we just witness the birth of a villain? What if Ben was an apprentice, and this was his master? What if his master progressively increased the violence that Ben believed he had no choice but inflict? Ultimately, who would Ben become as he aged, and eventually became a master himself?
Or is Ben going to live with his choices for the remainder of your narrative? What if this was a single event, and Ben went home to Emily and their anniversary? If Ben internalises the decision he made to hurt another, he may not acknowledge (or know) the influence that authority has over us. That would be a tough cross to bear (and yep, a wound was just born!).
What do you think? Have you seen this process at work in any books you’ve read? Can you see it synthesising with a character you’re developing? Comments and feedback are always appreciated. Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook, or Twitter.
Have a wonderful week,