What Bill and the other volunteers who took part weren't told was that the electric shocks were fake – and that both the Experimenter and the Learner were actors. The real purpose of the experiment was to see how far the volunteers would go. Stanley Milgram had asked colleagues how many people they thought would go all the way and administer a lethal 450-volt shock. Most said less than 1 per cent – and those would probably be psychopaths.
Yet Bill, like 65 per cent of the volunteers, gave an apparently lethal electric shock when told to do so.
I remember thinking, when I first read this, that such a figure was completely unbelievable. I was absolutely certain, and I'm sure everyone who read about Milgram's work was equally certain, that I would never give a fatal electric shock to someone simply because I had been asked to do so by someone in authority. It is inconceivable that I could be manipulated in this way.
Perhaps, I thought, the volunteers had deep-down realised that this was a fake experiment, that they were just playing along. When critics put this point to Milgram he scathingly responded, "the suggestion that the subjects only feigned sweating, trembling, and stuttering to please the Experimenter is pathetically detached from reality, equivalent to the statement that haemophiliacs bleed to keep their physicians busy".
... humans have a tendency to blindly follow orders, if they are presented in a plausible fashion by someone who is apparently in authority. What these experiments revealed was just how strong this "tendency" really is. Psychology, which is often criticised for discovering the bleeding obvious, had shown that it was capable of making surprising, original, disturbing contributions to our understanding of ourselves.
People who live in normal society, who are trapped in the mainstream information bubble, will accept many stories and situations that, to the more well informed and introspective, appear completely unreasonable.
It is because of our tendency to fit within "social norms" we must train ourselves to think independently. At present too many people in the educated Western world remain unaware and not sufficiently concerned about the manufactured wars, fake terrorism and financial corruption that is all about us.
Too many are taught to accept the "it's all under control" memes pushed by the talking heads on TV.
ps. Free will exists (I think!) but we obviously have to work at maintaining it.
[Posted at the SpookyWeather blog, January 13th, 2011.]