Friday, November 11, 2011
If you were put in a situation where you were told by an authority figure to commit an act of pure evil, how would you respond? Would you defy authority and disregard your orders -- or would you meekly do as you were told?
That was the position I found myself in when I appeared on a TV show called HOW EVIL ARE YOU which aired on the Discovery Channel in October of 2011.
Only I didn’t know I was appearing on a TV show at the time. I had seen an ad on Craigs List, looking for people to come in and get paid to take a memory test. Sounded like an easy way to make some fast cash, so I figured “Why not?”
On the day of the test, I drove to an office building in L.A. I met with an old doctor in a white lab coat with a white beard. There was another guy in the room who had also shown up to take the test. This guy was about 45 years old, and heavyset. We’ll call him “Stanley.”
The doctor explained that he was conducting a test on the effects of punishment and learning. He said, “Our studies have shown that people learn better when punishment is administered, so we will be administering electric shocks to one of you when you get a wrong answer. But the shocks are not dangerous.”
Right off the bat, I sensed that something was wrong here. The doctor kept using the word “punishment” over and over, which seemed a very strange word for a doctor to use. I know that when training dogs, it has been found that the “Reward” method is far more effective than the “Punishment” method.
When you smack a dog for doing something wrong, the dog does not understand why he is being smacked. But when you reward him for doing good, the dog learns that good behavior brings rewards.
It seemed to me that if even dogs do not learn anything from punishment, than surely humans have evolved to the point where punishment does not work on us, either.
So right off the bat, something seemed a little off about this whole thing.
Stanley and I were given consent form to fill out, saying that we would be working with electric shocks, and that either one of us could stop the experiment at any time. That made me feel good, because if I was getting zapped with electricity, I wanted to have the ability to walk away.
The doctor said, “One of you will be administering the electric shocks to the other. The person administering the shocks will be the Teacher. The person receiving the shocks will be the Learner.”
He had us pick pieces of paper out of his hand to determine who would be the zapper and who would be the zappee. I got to pick first. It was with much relief that I saw that my paper said “Teacher” on it.
Stanley picked second, and of course, his paper said “Learner”
Or so I thought. I didn’t know it at the time, but the doctor was an actor, and so was Stanley. Odds are, both pieces of paper probably said “Teacher” on them, but I never saw the other one. The whole thing was a set-up designed to see how many “shocks” I was willing to give another man.
Turns out there is a famous study called “The Milgram Experiment” that was conducted back in the 1960s. (You can find it on Youtube.) Dr. Milgram was a man who was trying to understand how the Nazis, many of whom were loyal husbands and good family men, could have committed the atrocities that they were ordered to do by their superiors.
Milgram wondered if ordinary people would commit acts of pure evil if they were ordered to by an authority figure. So he performed an experiment where ordinary people were told to inflict pain on innocent participants via electric shock.
His findings? A whopping 80% of the people followed through the experiment all the way to the end. Most of the Milgram’s test subjects walked out of the lab shaken, thinking they had just killed another human being with electric shock.
In 2011, film director Eli “Hostel” Roth was asked by the Discovery Channel to host a Halloween special about the nature of evil.
As part of the one-hour program, Roth decided to recreate the Milgram Experiment. He figured enough time had passed that most people would not have heard of it. Roth was correct. I think it’s safe to say that most of the people who walked into his trap had no idea they were replaying an experiment from 50 years before.
I have to admit, I was clueless, as well. I had no idea that there were hidden cameras in the doctor’s office, and that a famous film director and actor (he played the Jew Bear in INGLORIOUS BASTARDS) was watching my every move.
Stanley and I were brought in to a small office where we were shown the electronic device that the “Learner’ would be hooked up to. Stanley was strapped in to a chair and hooked up to the machine.
It occurred to me that the right thing to do here would be for me to offer to switch places with Stanley. He was older than I, and seemed in frailer health. But I really didn’t like the idea of me being the one to receive the electric shocks. I reasoned, “Well, he lost the drawing. I won, fair and square. Fate has decreed that he be the one to get shocked. So I will let Fate call the shots on this one!”
Just before we got started, Stanley threw out another curveball. He said, “Doctor, before we begin the experiment, I should tell you that I have a heart condition. Am I going to have any problems here?”
The doctor pondered that for a second and then said, “No. You’re not in any danger.”
Stanley looked relieved and said okay.
I was brought in to the next room. The door was closed, so I could not see Stanley. But he was still close enough that I could hear him through the door.
The Doctor led me to a table housing the controls for the zapping machine, which looked like something out of a 1960s sci-fi movie. (I believe they used the same machine from the original experiment of the 1960s.)
The Doctor instructed me in how to use the machine. I was to read a series of questions to the patient in the next room. Every time he got an answer wrong, I was to flick a switch which would render a mild shock to him. The shocks would increase in voltage with every wrong answer.
There were about 25 switches in the row, with the last one being labeled “DANGER - EXTREMELY HIGH VOLTAGE.”
As we began the experiment, there were two thoughts prominent in my head: 1) The doctor had said that the shocks were mild enough that they posed no real danger to the patient, despite his heart condition; and 2) Either one of us could quit at any time.
The test began. Stanley got the first few answers right. Then he got his first wrong answer. Following the orders that I had been given, I flicked the first switch.
Stanley let out a mild “Ow!” indicating that he felt a slight shock. The test continued. Stanley got several more answers wrong. I kept flicking switches, like a good little Nazi.
With each flick I switched, Stanley’s reactions were getting louder and more pronounced. Clearly he was experiencing more and more discomfort. I have to say, it bothered me that I was able to hit those switches so callously, all in defense of “just doing my job.“
Still, I kept thinking of what the doctor had said about the patient not being in any real danger. If a doctor said the guy would be okay, I was willing to believe him.
The experiment continued. The patient started screaming in pain as I hit the switches. At this point, I started to think this whole thing was fake, because the patient’s reactions were so over the top. Usually grown men don’t scream when they are in pain. They might curse, but they don’t scream And this guy was screaming like a banshee.
I still didn’t know I was on TV, but I started to think maybe I was taking part in a fake experiment to test the moral character of the people hitting the switches.
And then we reached the critical point of the experiment. After one particularly strong “shock,” the patient cried out, “Experimenter, that’s all. Get me out of here. I told you I had heart trouble. My heart’s starting to bother me. I refuse to go on!”
This all I needed to hear. I felt really bad for the guy at that moment. I knew I was getting paid the same either way if I stopped the experiment, so I turned to the doctor and said I would not continue.
The doctor looked very stern and said “It is essential that the experiment continue.”
There was something in the way he delivered that line that sounded very scripted to me. It sounded more like a line from a movie than something a real doctor would say.
I figured, “Ok, this is just a test to see if I will stop. Here’s my chance to pass the test.”
I said to the doctor, “The consent form did say that we could leave at any time.”
The doctor got a disapproving look on his face and said, “I will have to consult with my colleagues.” With that, he got up and left the room. I figured, “Ok, here’s where he goes and gets another fake doctor to try to tell me how important it is that I finish the experiment.”
But he didn’t get another fake doctor. Instead, he got a real psychologist, Dr. Jerry Burger, who is an expert in administering the Migram Experiment. Dr. Burger revealed to me that the whole thing was a set-up, and that I was being filmed for TV. The shock machine was a fake. The “doctor” who oversaw the experiment revealed that he was an actor, and “Stanley” stepped out of the little room and showed that he was an actor, as well.
That man was followed by Eli Roth, who I was most familiar with from his appearances on the Howard Stern Show.
Eli was impressed that I had stopped the test, and noted that only one other person that day had done the same.
He filled me in all about the Milgram Experiment, and then he interviewed me on camera about why I made the choices that I made. I explained that it mostly came down to the fact that I had signed a consent form saying I could quit whenever I wanted.
I think I may have found a flaw in this version of the Milgram Experiment, and it was that consent form. I think if you really want to get accurate results to this experiment, you should tell the participants that they do not get paid unless they complete the experiment. You might end up with some very different results.
I know in my case, the fact that I was being paid regardless of the outcome made my decision a lot easier. If you promised to take away my pay unless I flipped all the switches, I just might have just fried that poor bastard!
After we finished shooting, I got to shoot the breeze with Eli Roth for a few minutes. I found him to be a very likable guy. We bonded over our mutual love of Howard Stern.
Then it was time for me to leave, so they could bring in the next victim.
All in all, I was pleased with my results in the experiment. At first, I was appalled at myself at how easily I could administer electric shocks to another human being.
But then I felt redeemed when I responded to a fellow human being‘s cry for help and stopped the experiment before anyone “died.”
Even though I began to suspect about halfway through that this was some kind of prank or social experiment, I still didn’t know for sure. My reaction was genuine. I guess this shows that I would have made a poor Nazi. I would have followed orders up to a point, but I would have drawn the line at actually hurting innocent people.
That was a most unexpected discovery for me to make on the Discovery Channel.