Basic Instincts: The Science of Evil


One of the first participants in the study was Troy, a 39-year-old electrician. Like all the participants, he was paid $50 and was told that the money would be his to keep, even if he quit the experiment early. Brian, in the role of the "experimenter," informed Troy that he was taking part in a learning and memory study and would be teaching word pairs to Ken, who was really a plant in the experiment.

If Ken got a word pair wrong, Troy was instructed to punish him with an electric shock from another room. The more word pairs Ken answered incorrectly, the more intense the shocks seemed to become. After getting a few wrong, at 75 volts, Troy heard what he thought was Ken shouting in pain -- but it was really an automatic audio cue that was set to go off at that voltage.

Each shock after that triggered a similar audio cue of pain. At 105 volts, Troy became uncomfortable. At 150 volts, he heard Ken plead, "That's all. Get me out of here. I told you I had heart trouble. My heart's starting to bother me. … Let me out!" Troy looked questioningly at the experimenter, who told him he must continue. Though he was clearly uncomfortable, Troy continued with another word pair before the experiment was stopped.

'I Was Doing What I Was Supposed to Do'

After the experiment, Troy said, "I was not comfortable. I cannot tell you why I listened to him and kept going. I should have said no."

When asked why he didn't stop administering the shocks, Troy explained, "I was doing what I was supposed to do, and I'm there to help conduct an experiment, so I'm just doing my part."

Troy's response is easy to understand, according to Burger. "The typical response is to turn toward the experimenter and if not to say something, at least give a look that says, 'What should I do?' And of course, when an expert tells them, 'Not a problem. This is nothing to worry about, continue.' The rational thing to do in that situation is to continue."

Milgram's original experiment tested just a handful of women, but "Primetime's" sampling was approximately half men and half women. Would the "gentler" sex be more reluctant to shock someone? And what about the people who refused to continue to shock the subject after hearing his demand to be released? What made them choose to stand up to authority?

'The Results'

In ABC News' version of the Milgram experiment, we tested 18 men, and found that 65 percent of them agreed to administer increasingly painful electric shocks when ordered by an authority figure.

22 women signed up for our experiment. Even though most people said that women would be less likely to inflict pain on the learner, a surprising 73 percent yielded to the orders of the experimenter.

Out of the 30 people we tested with an additional accomplice acting as a moral guide, 63 percent still inflicted electric shocks, even though the accomplice refused to go on.

Our subjects had an unusually high level of education. 22.9 percent had some college, 40 percent had bachelor's degrees and 20 percent had master's degrees.

The group was also ethnically diverse with 54.3 percent (white), 18.6 percent (Asian), 12.9 percent (Latin/Hispanic), 8.6 percent (Indian-Asian) and 4.3 percent (African -American).

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