Tag Archives: 2009 Veritas

The Milgram experiment and human cruelty

This Veritas was wriiten on Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Media_httpwwwsocialso_fxbva

In today’s VERITAS we shall study two social psychology experiments. When I first read about these experiments I was pretty shocked and amazed at the same time. These experiments show us how easy it is for people to be cruel and break boundaries of their own ethical structures.

In 1961 Stanley Milgram devised an experiment to answer the question: “could it be that the people who engaged in torturing others during the holocaust were just following orders”. He wanted to know if orders from an authority figure could override one’s own moral standards. Can ordinary people leading normal lives become agents of cruelty if they are directed to do acts of cruelty by an authority?

So let’s look at the Milgram experiment: there are three players: an experimenter, a teacher and a learner. The teacher does not know that the experimenter and the learner are just role playing. He thinks that this is a serious experiment and that the learner is a subject of the experiment. But actually only the teacher is the subject and is unaware of the full details of the experiment. The learner sits in one room and the teacher and the experimenter sit together in another room. The teacher can hear the learner and the learner can hear the teacher. The teacher is told that he will ask the learner several questions related to a subject. If the learner answers wrong then the teacher will give an electric shock to the learner. The teacher is told that the electric shocks will increase by 15 V everytime the shock switch is pressed. So the teacher thinks that he will give shocks of an increasing severity for every wrong answer. The teacher is told that he can give a maximum of 450 V shock 4 times and after that the experiment will be stopped. The role of the experimenter was to prod the teacher to continue the experiment and not stop.

So the teacher would ask a question and if the answer is wrong will give a shock. The learner sitting in another room will scream in pain and the teacher will ask the next question. If the teacher seemed reluctant to continue the experimenter will encourage him to go ahead and even tell him that he ( the teacher) will not be held responsible for the pain or even the death of the learner. The teacher will go ahead with the questions and give increasing amounts of electric shock. The learner will cry louder and even bang the wall to stop the experiment. The teachers were not told that they could stop the experiment but in reality if a teacher really wanted to stop the experiment even after receiving repeated requests and orders by the experimenter, it would be stopped. The teachers thought that they were giving real shocks and the cries of pain from the other room were real but in reality there was no shocks and the cries of pain were enacted. The role of the experimenter was to keep pushing the teacher to ask questions and give shocks.

Now, it may seem to us that very few subjects(“teachers”) would give the maximum shock. We seem to think that most teachers will stop after a few shocks because their hearts will melt on hearing the painful cries of the learners. But this was not what Milgram actually observed. He did the first experiment with 40 different subjects(“teachers”).  You would be surprised to know that 26 of them actually gave 450 V of electric shock to the learners. But we must note that some of these 26 were reluctant to go to this level but they went on and on after being encouraged or ordered by the experimenter. Only one of the 40 teachers stopped and absolutely refused to go on with the shocks before the 300 V level! Note that all these subjects(“teachers”) were regular people like us.

Milgram has tried this experiment several times and has always got similar results. There are several ways of explaining this experiment: some scientists think that in situations in which we have little expertise or power we tend to follow the leader or authority even if it means letting go of our beliefs or even morals. Some other scientists think that this experiment contains the essence of obedience: people carry out the wishes of an authority as mere instruments and do not consider themselves morally responsible for their actions.

Milgram has done several variations of the experiment and found the following:

1) Women fare no better than men and are equally likely to give maximum shocks but they tend to feel more stressed while doing it.

2) If the experimenter( the authority that tells the teacher to go on) is remote and speaks to the teacher  through a telephone the compliance decreases. But 21 % teachers still gave the maximum shock.

3) If the teacher could also see another teacher do the experiment and comply fully then the percentage of compliance increased to nearly 90%. So if we see someone else do something we seem to be less reluctant to do it even if it goes against our morals.

In my opinion this is a very powerful experiment. It shows us the limits of our morals in such a direct and unclothed fashion that it shocks us. It seems that being social creatures our compliance to authority is stronger than our conscience. This explains why armies consisting of people just like us seem so willing to rape, plunder and murder when told to do so by their leaders. We may be individuals in what we feel but when it comes to action we seem to follow the leader or the crowd.

You should also read about the Stanford prison experiment. This is another role playing experiment that will make you very uneasy. It shows how when some people are told that they are policemen and others told that they are prisoners will after some days actually start acting like their roles. The policemen actually became cruel and the prisoners actually became depressed even though everyone knew that this is just a game. It shows how power can make people use it in the most cruel fashion and others to accept it and become victims.

regards

Kanwar

|=============================

=========================|
Go, wondrous creature! mount where Science guides:
Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides:
Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
Correct old time and regulate the Sun;
|======================================================|

Creative Commons License
Veritas by Kanwarpreet Grewal is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Evolution and Humans

This post was written on Friday, March 06, 2009

Media_httpwwwnewscien_tkltj

We all know about Darwin’s theory of natural selection and how it affects the evolution of species. According to Darwin’s theory, individuals better adapted to the environment produce more offspring. This causes their traits to pass on. The individuals that have traits that are less suitable for the environment produce less offspring and these traits decrease over generations and finally die. It is thus the survival of the fittest( or best adapted).

Does evolution apply to us humans? Are we still evolving according to the laws of natural selection? Do we still select the fittest amongst ourselves and not let the less pass on their genes? These are the questions that we will try to answer in this VERITAS. And these are not easy
questions- we are the only animals that know what evolution is and this knowledge adds an interesting dimension to these questions. Can we use this knowledge to evolve according to a plan?

Humans have not stopped evolving. We know that Homo Sapiens originated in Africa  about 200,000 years ago. They spread across the world about 50,000 years ago and replaced the existing humanoid populations in Europe and Asia. About 15,000 years ago, during the last ice age, as the ice sheets expanded and the sea levels fell, they crossed over to the Americas through the Bering Strait land bridge.
So we all come from a common origin- we all started with the same genes. But as we can see, people in different parts of the world look different, have different colors, have different heights, are prone to infections from different diseases. This is because of natural selection.

Let’s take some examples of how environment has shaped human evolution. People living in places that have less sunlight have fair skin. This is because fair skin absorbs ultraviolet radiation better compared to darker skin. This helps people living in sunlight deprived regions get adequate vitamin D.
So though we all have a common ancestor, people living in different parts of the world  have different skin colors to suit their own environment. Take another example: lots of people in east Asia cannot digest milk in adulthood. This is because they lack a digestive enzyme responsible for lactose digestion. But most people in Europe have this enzyme and thus milk, cheese etc are a regular part of their diet.Thus we see that culture of what we eat and what animals we keep has also influenced evolution. One last example: some populations in Africa are resistant to malaria. Since mosquitoes are found in plenty in Africa, this resistance offered survival and therefore reproductive advantages causing the evolution
of the whole population to have this resistance.

So we are evolving. Local environments challenge us and the genes that are best suited for these environments pass on to future generations. But there is nothing uniquely human in patterns of evolution that I have just described. Different sets of animals when placed in different environments will evolve differently. So if we were to separate Asia, Africa, America and Europe from each other for 20,000 years we may all
evolve into different species- each perfect in its own environment but completely different from the other and unable to reproduce with the other species. The reason why Humans are still one species is because we travel and we marry people from different parts of the world. If we are to remain one species it is important that we realize that racial groups should not have barriers for inter-marriage and reproduction.
We have to mix with each other and have inter-race children if we are to prevent a speciazation of different human populations.

Natural selection is cruel. Individuals not well adapted to the environment die or are unable to produce offspring. That is how it happens in animals and that it how it happened for humans. But we are now a more civilized species. We care for everyone. Medical science has given almost everyone the chance to enjoy a long life and be able to reproduce. Now, this also means that harmful genes do net get weeded out by evolution. And that is not good for the human population as a whole.

Also, in some cases people carrying less useful genes tend to have more offspring. Intelligence is a classic example of this. People with a high IQ tend to study more, marry late and have less offspring. People with lesser IQ study less, marry early and tend to have more children. Would this cause the average human intelligence to decrease over generations?

Thus we face a dilemma: We have evolved into a civilized society in which we care for everyone. Thus our social fabric does not let the cruel hands of natural selection weed out the bad/less useful genes. But we do value certain characteristics like intelligence and good health and want them to  improve over time. How do we achieve this goal without letting natural selection take control?

The answer lies in Genetic Engineering. Using genetic engineering we can let everyone have children but without the bad genes. With genetic engineering we can evolve into more developed species without letting natural selection take control. With genetic engineering we can become more intelligent over generations without having to ask our high IQ friends to produce more kids than their neighbors.

In my opinion genetic engineering can help us achieve the aim of evolution without natural selection. But it has to be done very carefully and in a manner that is fair to everyone and also ethical. And it has to be done after sound research into the effects and side-effects of modifying each gene.

Our future is not in the hands of natural selection but in the hands of modern science which would exercise selection over genes and not over people.

Kanwar

|======================================================|
Go, wondrous creature! mount where Science guides:
Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides:
Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
Correct old time and regulate the Sun;
|======================================================|

Creative Commons License
Veritas by Kanwarpreet Grewal is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.