So. What does all of this mean? Are we just evil bastards at heart? Leaping at the chance to kill when we get one? Milgram didn’t believe that to be the case. In interviews conducted immediately after and six months after each experiment, most of the subjects reported being deeply concerned or embarrassed with their behavior, as well as being extremely apologetic to the “learner” (who, remember, wasn’t actually experiencing pain). People, it seemed, had a lot of trouble going through with this barbarism, even if they eventually did. And their distress makes it clear that they weren’t going along with this experiment with the knowledge that the learner wasn’t being hurt, or the idea that it was fun to hurt people. So what would cause a normal person to kill another human being in the name of getting them to learn word pairs more accurately?
Milgram had several ideas as to why we’re so willing to obey even when it runs counter to our moral codes.
First and foremost: we are an obedient society. In fact, most human societies are. This isn’t necessarily sinister in and of itself, it is after all how we manage to get children to stop doing various horribly stupid and dangerous things. Our society is hierarchical from the ground up. A hierarchy is a useful shortcut that allows us to easily manage a complicated society, allowing you to know that ignoring your co-worker is acceptable but you need to pay attention to your boss. However, living in this structure means we have a massive amount of experience obeying orders from higher-ups. It is reinforced daily that to disobey means to lose your job and potentially your life. So yes, you do feel terrible about torturing someone, but your every experience from birth says that disobedience to an authority figure carries huge consequences.
Another possibility is that the very act of feeling bad is what allows people to continue the torture. This seems counter-intuitive until you realize what feeling bad actually does to you. When you feel awful about something happening, it allows you to think “wow, I’m pretty nice aren’t I?” because well you feel bad that the team made the fat kid do the Truffle Shuffle, and you certainly wouldn’t have made him do it if it were up to you. Note that this doesn’t really change the overall situation for the fat kid.
The experience of doing something you feel is morally wrong can cause a tension between who you feel you are (nice) and who you appear to be right now (heart patient murderer). Now, an obvious way to resolve this is to not murder but remember that that’s actually not the path of least resistance. That would mean going against decades of training and a sense of duty to the “experiment”. No, the easiest way to resolve this is to simply tell yourself you’re not a bad person. You feel a bit better, because you’ve made it clear that were it up to you you’d have no part in this and frankly you find it abhorrent… and then you force the nice man’s hand onto the electro-shock plate, confident that this reflects poorly only on that asshole scientist.
So what exactly should you do to avoid becoming a murderous automaton? Well, step one is to not make it sound as awesome as I just did. But the most important thing is to simply avoid putting yourself in a situation where you will be contributing to something terrible. Ask questions about the full scope of what you’re being asked to do and don’t sign up if it seems iffy. Always do your best to remain skeptical and examine your own actions and their effects reasonably often, because they won’t go from “expense accounts” to “genocide reports” all in one day. Remember how good you are at justifying your own bad actions.
Hell, read Milgram’s book: “Obedience to Authority”, and you’ll never be able to follow an order from a man in a lab coat again.