Why are people less empathetic these days

How obedient are people today?

At the beginning of the sixties, in a sensational experiment, around two thirds of the participants agreed to punish a person with strong electric shocks at the behest of a person of authority. A new version of the experiment has now shown that the willingness to obey has hardly decreased since then.

In 1963, Hannah Arendt coined the famous formula of the “banality of evil” in her report on the trial of the Nazi desk perpetrator Adolf Eichmann. In the same year, Stanley Milgram, a young assistant professor at Yale University, published the results of an experiment which, in his view, confirmed Arendt's central thesis: Very "banal" people can inflict considerable suffering on others without the need for sadistic personality traits. At the direction of an authority figure, around two thirds of the participants punished a test person for wrong answers in a learning task with strong electric shocks - without knowing that the apparatus was not energized. For ethical reasons, the experiment was not carried out for a long time. However, some experts speculated that people today - for example in the wake of the anti-authoritarian movement of 1968 - are more sensitive to the dangers of blind obedience and are therefore more likely to resist. But an ethically justifiable new edition of the experiment has now refuted this assumption.

Small steps into inhumanity

Like Milgram, the study carried out by Jerry Burger of Santa Clara University in California involved members of the most diverse professional groups, a total of 29 men and 41 women. Two people were received at the same time by the test leader, a man in his mid-thirties in a white lab coat. He said the purpose of the study was to explore the impact of punishment on learning. To do this, one participant must play a teacher, the other a student. In the supposedly random distribution of roles, the student's part was always drawn to a fifty-year-old accomplice of the experimenter. The actual test person saw how the experimenter tied the arms of the student, who was sitting on a chair, to the armrests and attached an electrode to his left wrist. Then he was told that he would be given a list of 25 word pairs, for example “strong - poor”, read out, which he should memorize. For errors in the subsequent query, he is punished with electric shocks of increasing strength.

At this point the student pointed out that he had been diagnosed with a mild heart condition a few years ago. The experimenter appeased that the shocks were painful but not dangerous. He then went to an adjoining room with the teacher and asked him to take a seat in front of a large device, the "shock generator". On the front there was a row of 30 switches that covered the voltage spectrum from 15 to 450 volts in 15-volt steps. The teacher was instructed how to test the student. Wrong answers should be punished with a power surge, the first with 15 volts and each further with the next higher voltage level. Finally, with the teacher’s consent, the experimenter gave the teacher a test shock of 15 volts to give him an impression of what the punishment felt like.

"Please carry on!"

During the course of the instruction, the teacher was made aware three times that he could cancel his participation in the experiment at any time and still keep the fee of 50 dollars that had already been paid - so he was aware that he could give up the role of the punishing teacher at any time. His position became uncomfortable at the latest after pressing the 75-volt switch, because that was when the student's moaning penetrated the wall for the first time, which became louder and louder with the subsequent electric shocks. If the teacher was hesitant or if he turned to the experimenter with a question, he received one of the following standard answers: "Please continue!", "The experiment requires you to continue!" or «You have no other choice, you have to go on!». If the teacher asked whether he was responsible if the student were to suffer damage to his health, the experimenter replied reassuringly: "I am responsible!"

When the 150 volt switch was pressed, the situation escalated - the student shouted: “Enough, let me out of here! I told you that I have heart problems. I refuse to continue! " If the teacher agreed to continue the procedure regardless of this protest, the experiment was terminated at this point for ethical reasons and the subject was informed that the student had in fact not been given any shocks. At Milgram, the participants had been able to prove their obedience up to the actuation of the 450-volt switch, with no sound from the pupil being heard from 330 volts. When asked whether the exposure of the test subjects in Milgram's experiment had not exceeded the limits of what was reasonable, a bitter controversy sparked at the time, which ultimately contributed to the introduction of ethical guidelines for research - and a repetition of Milgram's experiment from the late 1970s impossible in the USA. He had repeatedly emphasized in vain that in a follow-up survey, many test subjects described participating in his experiment as personal enrichment and only less than two percent regretted it.

Cultural differences

In the sixties, however, he was able to use various variants of his experiment to show the extent to which the environment influences human behavior. If the participants were given a «teacher colleague» and the switching of the power switch was delegated to them, more than 90 percent were willing to demonstrate maximum obedience. If, on the other hand, they had to press the student's hand themselves on a power plate, the obedience rate fell to about 30 percent. More important than the closeness of the pupil, however, was the presence of the person in authority: If they gave their instructions over the phone, only one in five went through the punishment procedure to the end. Cultural differences also seem to be able to influence the willingness to obey: In Australia, for example, a repetition of the Milgram experiment in 1974 resulted in an obedience rate of 28 percent, while in Germany at the same time it was 85 percent. On average, however, in nine repetitions in Europe, Africa and Asia, as with Milgram, around 65 percent of the participants were ready to press the last switch.

In the new version of the experiment that has now been carried out, 70 percent of the participants showed that they were willing to go beyond the penalty of 150 volts. Since 79 percent of those who continued at 150 volts at Milgram also finally pressed the 450-volt switch, it can be extrapolated that the obedience rate for the last switch today is only slightly below that of the 1960s. Otherwise, as with Milgram, the willingness to obey was not related to the age, gender or educational level of the participants. However, there was a significant connection with the ability to empathize, which was assessed using a questionnaire: Particularly empathetic people did not refuse to obey more often, but turned to the experimenter earlier than others with critical questions. This finding coincides with the results of a recently published reevaluation of eight Milgram studies, which for once put disobedience into the focus instead of obedience.

Legal awareness more important than pity

Dominic Packer of Ohio State University investigated how the refusal of participants to administer another electric shock had spread across the 30 counters in Milgram's studies. The evaluation showed, on the one hand, that the dropout rate was not related to the pupil's statements of pain, which began from 75 volts and increased in intensity with each additional electric shock. Compassion alone does not seem to lead to higher "refusal to obey" rates - not even in particularly sensitive people, as Burger's study also confirmed. On the other hand, it turned out that the highest rate of disobedience occurred after pressing the 150-volt switch: More than a third of those who refused to work got out here. As mentioned earlier, in Burger and Milgram's experiments, at this point the students specifically requested to be released from the experiment. According to Packer, dropouts apparently decided the conflict that had now broken out in the sense that they gave the rights of the other participant priority over the instructions of the experimenter.

This finding could be of importance in understanding various problems of "real life" that Milgram's experiment is used to explain, such as the mistreatment of prisoners. In this context, Packer recalls that the American administration under President Bush in the fight against terrorism has overridden various rights that prisoners of war have under the Geneva Conventions and replaced them with the assurance that the prisoners would not be "in undue pain" during interrogation »Added. However, according to Packer, the results of his study now suggest that pain empathy is hardly able to offer protection against abuse if the rights of those affected are restricted or unclear. If an authority figure appears in such a situation who describes a technique such as "waterboarding" (pouring water on the head of a person tied to a board, thereby triggering fear of suffocation) as necessary and harmless, then there is a risk of blindness Obedience of ordinary prison staff leads to inhumanity.