In the early 1970s, Stanford University (California) psychologist Philip Zimbardo devised a prison-type experiment: he divided 21 young people into two groups: jailers and inmates. To help the university students to get into their role, he organized a complete paraphernalia for them: the prisoners were detained at their homes by the local police, conveniently searched and taken to the “jail” in handcuffs. To erase any trace of individuality, they were given uniforms with a number sewn on – their “name” in prison – and forced to wear nylon caps that hid their hair. The guards were dressed in khaki, carrying mirrored glasses, batons, whistles, handcuffs and cell keys. They were instructed to maintain order and discipline, but without using violence. Then both groups began to play what would end up being the most famous role of their lives.
Two days later the rebellion broke out. The prisoners tore their clothes and identification numbers to shreds, shouted and insulted the guards, erected barricades and locked themselves in their cells. The guards put down the rebellion with violence, making use of fire extinguishers. transforming the rights of prisoners into privileges and pitting some prisoners against each other. Shortly thereafter, one of the inmates had to be returned home very soon because he was showing symptoms of serious emotional disturbance.
On the third day, the rumor of a mass escape plan spread through the prison , which, although false, was repressed by the jailers. On the fourth day, three more prisoners had to be released : they suffered attacks of uncontrolled crying, anger, anguish and depression. The guards harshly insulted the prisoners, waking them up to force them to repeat their prison number without pause, sing a song, laugh, humiliate themselves or clean the toilet with their hands; they felt very good about using their power sadistically .
For their part, the resistance of the prisoners faded until it disappeared completely. On the sixth day, when the guards were already walking around with a cocky gesture brandishing their clubs in the middle of the inmates who were walking with a submissive air, the experiment was suspended. Zimbardo wrote: “In less than a week human values were abolished and the most horrendous, primitive and sick side of human nature came to the surface.”
Stanley Milgram of Yale University and Zimbardo’s mentor conducted one of the most disturbing experiments in the history of psychology in July 1961 .
In it, a volunteer, who thought he was coming to memory research, was asked to strap a person to an electrified chair and put an electrode on their wrist. Afterwards, the volunteer went to an adjoining room where there was an electric generator. Every time the person strapped into the chair made a mistake, the volunteer had to deliver a shock . The first failures were sanctioned with light shocks (15-60 V) that were rising. The penultimate step, between 375 and 420 V, the label “Danger” appeared and in the last level a laconic “XXX” (435-450 V) appeared. The cries of pain and anguish increased in intensity with the shocks . The protocol stipulated that if the volunteer hesitated to continue the experiment at 315 V, the psychologist was to give him a serious warning 4 consecutive times not to question the experiment and to act as he was told. The end result was terrifying: out of 40 participants, none refused to discharge a shock of less than 300 V, five abandoned the experiment at this point, nine did so between 315 and 375 V , and 26 went so far as to punish with 450 V! Repeated the experiment in other countries, the results were identical: in Germany, for example, 85% pulled the XXX lever .
In other words, most of the volunteers reached a level where it made sense to think that they had killed the person in the next room just because someone in a white coat had told them to. And all despite facing serious internal conflicts. Thus, in 20 minutes, a mature, serene and self-confident businessman was transformed “into a trembling, babbling wretch on the verge of a nervous breakdown.” At one point he slammed his fist into the palm of his other hand and muttered, “Oh my God, make this end!” However, he listened to every word of the experimenter and followed through to the end .
The conclusions of the experiment are difficult to ignore. It seems that obedience to authority can take anyone too far . But there is one last consolation: if someone rebels, we may be able to get out of the situation. In a final variation, two observers were placed next to the experimenter. If they left the laboratory indignantly, 90% of the real volunteers followed them and disobeyed the experimenter.
Of course, other experiments have shown that as a general rule we are lousy Samaritans and look for scapegoats to account for our misfortunes…
On May 13, 1964, at three in the morning, a young woman named Kitty Genovese was returning home to New York. When she was walking from the car to the front door of her house, she was brutally attacked for more than half an hour by a man who stabbed her to death . At least 38 neighbors witnessed the murder from their windows, but none called the police. The obvious answer given by the media, nobody in the big cities helps their neighbor, is not justified: are tourists not helped? Or when an old woman stumbles and falls? Or if a supermarket cashier faints before your eyes? What psychologists like Darley and Latané have found is that the probability of helping others depends on the number of witnesses . If the subjects think they are the only witnesses to the emergency, the probability of help is 85% and they react in an average of 52 seconds. As the number of witnesses increases, the frequency of help decreases and the response time increases . When the subject believes that there are two other witnesses, he will help 31% of the time and will take 100 seconds to do so.
The size of the community also influences when it comes to helping others. For example, before a man whose leg was wrapped in bandages and soaked in blood, who fainted before the eyes of passers-by. In towns with less than 1,000 inhabitants, about 42% of the people provided help, a figure that dropped to 17% in towns with several million inhabitants. What is striking is not this last fact, but rather that in very small populations, only 40 out of 100 are willing to lend a hand to a stranger .
Milgram, S. (1974) Obedience to Authority; An Experimental View, Harpercollins
Zimbardo, P. (2008) The Lucifer Effect, Paidós