In an article titled “Why We Hurt the Ones We Can’t See,” Dr. Kenneth Worthy writes, “Imagine this 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/her 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.
“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.”
Those of us who studied social studies remember Professor Stanley Milgram’s studies of obedience done at Yale in the 1960s, which is what Worthy is referencing. The professor was trying to understand why soldiers in the German death camps would kill innocent people.
Milgram’s experiment involved three people, one of whom was a volunteer— the “teacher.” The second person was the “learner,” who although pretending to be a volunteer was actually an actor,and the “experimenter” was the person in charge.
The learner was taken into a room and strapped into a chair that would give electric shocks. The teacher was given a sample electric shook before the experiment started, so he could feel what the learner would be feeling. Then, the teacher and experimenter would go to a separate room where they could not see the learner, but could still communicate.
The teacher would read word pairs to the learner, and then read the first word of each pair and wait for the learner’s response. If the answer was incorrect, the teacher would press a button, which he had been told was delivering an electrical shock.
With each incorrect answer the voltage would increase, and the actor would start screaming and making noise. If the teacher wanted to stop, the experimenter would say “Please continue, the experiment requires you continue; it is essential you continue, and you have no other choice but to continue.”
The experiment results were shocking because about 65 percent of the teachers, who were normal, everyday people, eventually administered maximum voltage.
Variations of the experiment were performed, but the biggest difference of whether someone administered maximum shocks was the proximity of the teacher to the learner.
Worthy writes, “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 [physically] closer to the victim—from 65 percent in the most remote condition to 30 percent in the most proximate one. 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.”
Every time people are attacked on the social media site Nextdoor Palisades or even via email (the News gets its share of people who vent), we think back to the Milgram experiment.
Worthy sets up the scenario perfectly. “First, make it a physically simple task like pushing a button”—that would be our computers, laptops and smart phones.
When we work with technology, we are usually isolated—it’s the nature of looking at the screen.
On the internet, one can find opinions that might appeal to what we’re feeling, but do we do research to see if they are legitimate?
If you think you have the right to make a mean tweet or harsh comment on Nextdoor or any social media site, we urge you to ask yourself, “Would I say that to the person’s face?” If the answer is “yes,” then do it in person. Don’t hide behind your computer. If the answer is “no,” you couldn’t look someone in the face and say it, then don’t press “send.”
The News thinks so much of the anger coursing through our society today is generated on social media because people can hide behind their computers. Interacting with buttons and machines doesn’t require kindness or emotion or response. Interacting with people requires civility and working towards compromise.