Review Essay: Willful Blindness by Margaret Heffernan, part 2
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Stephen Kaufman, M.D., Christian Vegetarian Association (CVA)

Review Essay: Willful Blindness by Margaret Heffernan, part 2

The studies conducted by Stanley Milgram of Yale University in the early 1960s are among the best known psychology experiments. They illustrate that obedience to authority often accounts for “willful blindness.”
Briefly, a volunteer subject was told that the experiment would study whether electric shocks could help people learn. This “teacher” thought he or she was delivering electric shocks to the “learner,” who was actually acting on behalf of the research team. The learner had to remember word pairs, and each incorrect answer led to ever increasing electric shocks. The teachers, who could hear but not see the learners, were nearly all distressed as the learner’s initial complaints of pain escalated to screams. In the initial experiment, all subjects wanted to stop, but they were told by another member of the experimental team that they must continue. 65% of subjects believed that they had delivered what they were told was the maximum shock – 450 volts.
Interestingly, Yale undergraduate psychology majors predicted that 0-3% of subjects would deliver the maximum voltage – roughly the percentage of psychopaths who are unable to feel empathy. Yet most subjects obeyed the instructions of the experimenters, even though they gained no reward for giving the maximum shock and were told that there was no penalty (they were paid $4 for their time) if they stopped at any time. In fact, in one variation, the “learner” mentioned that he had a heart condition, and as the shocks increased he begged the “teacher” to stop on that account. Even after the learner became silent, most teachers continued to administer shocks, following the researcher’s instructions.

Some of those who were skeptical of the research results suggested that participants might have known or suspected that the “learner” was acting. Subjects might have delivered the shocks because they believed that they really weren’t hurting anyone. Consequently, a different research team had a “fluffy puppy dog” receive electric shocks. I’ll talk about that experiment, and its implications, next essay. 

Go on to: Review Essay: Willful Blindness by Margaret Heffernan, part 3
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