David: What was the significance of the Milgram experiments as perceived when they first happened, do you think?
MC: So the Milgram experiments were conducted shortly after WW2, and I think the sentiment at the time was trying to figure out how on earth did the Holocaust happen. How is it that human beings could allow this atrocious torture and horrible acts to happen to other human beings? How on earth could this happen? And so Milgram’s experiments were really going after the idea that people are very compelled to obey authority. And people are willing to do atrocious things when they are persuaded to do so by authority.
And the headline was one of many experiments that he conducted. I think he conducted dozens of experiments where he and his team tweaked different aspects of the setup of the experiment to try and figure out how could you get people to deliver these life-threatening shocks to the confederate in the study. And, of course, the one that got the most press was the one showing something like 60%, or a large proportion of people in the experiment, were willing to go all the way to the fatal level of shock. But they had to go to a lot of pains to get people to do that.
David: How do you mean?|
MC: The majority of participants in that experiment voiced some protest at some point. They were deeply uncomfortable with the situation. They were sweating, heart racing, very distressed and asked to stop many times. And the experimenter would say things like, ‘You must go on. The experiment requires that you go on.’
The experimenter had to persuade the participants to carry on with the experiment. And so you can draw many different conclusions from this. One conclusion you can draw is that the majority of people are willing to shock a stranger to death.
David: And that was what was picked up at the time, isn’t it?
MC: That was what was picked up at the time, and I think that reflects the public sentiment at the time in trying to understand what had happened in Germany.
David: What do you see in it now when you look at it?
MC: Well, now, given the work that we’ve done, what I see in it is the distress that people were feeling, and really found it quite aversive to harm this other person.
David: So, in other words, the experiment… It’s an illustration of how hard you have to work to overcome…
David: Was there empathy, do you think?
MC: Yeah. Yeah, exactly.
David: So it’s a measure of how much you have to do to overcome that natural empathy.
David: So what is it that you’ve been trying to focus on with the whole suite of experiments that you’ve done?
MC: Our work is really focused around a central question, which is how do we value the welfare of other people? And we can ask how we value, for example, harm to others. How much are we willing to pay to avoid harming others, and how does this compare to the way that we value harm to ourselves?
So what we’re able to do in our studies is to develop very precise, mechanistic accounts of how people actually make these decisions and the values that people place on the other person’s welfare and what they’re willing to sacrifice to preserve that welfare.
So what we’ve shown is that if you compare how much money people are willing to pay to prevent shocks to another person with the amount of money people are willing to pay to prevent shocks to themselves, most people that we’ve tested will give out more money to avoid shocking a stranger than to avoid shocking themselves.
So we have to pay people more to deliver shocks to the other guy than to deliver shocks to themselves.
David: That’s reassuring.
MC: It is reassuring, yeah.