Evil


The Milgrom Experiments

In 1961 a young assistant professor at Yale University conducted an experiment on obedience. The aim was to see how far ordinary citizens would comply with an order to inflict pain on another human being. Members of the public were recruited and the experiments began. Two participants were introduced to one another, with one asked to play the role of “teacher” and the other the role of “learner”. The learner, who was an actor hired by Professor Milgrom, was strapped into a chair wired to a generator. The person playing the role of teacher was told that the experiment would test the effect of punishment on learning. They were to ask a series of questions, and each time the learner gave the wrong answer, they were to punish him with a jolt of electricity. Starting with 15 volts the teacher was to increase the voltage for every mistake.

To Professor Milgrom’s astonishment over 60% of participants pushed the voltage past the warning level which read “Danger – Severe Shock”. All this while they heard the “victim” moaning, then screaming in pain. Psychologists had suggested only a small group of the population with psychopathic tendencies would go through to this level, yet here were over 60% of people drawn from the general population of New Haven acting in ways that we all believe are cruel.

What do the experiments prove? Social behaviour experts question whether they demonstrate people’s willingness to blindly obey authority. After all people routinely disobey authority when they defy their parents, speed in their car, or fail to do what school teachers ask. Lee Ross of Stanford University and his colleague Richard Nisbett believe the Milgrom experiments show how decisive is context for our behaviour. In order to disobey participants had to step out of the whole situation and deny the validity of the experiment to the experimenter. Ross and Nisbett suggest that people tend to do thing because of where they are, not who they are. In different circumstances people will act in a manner quite different to how they might act in another set of circumstances.

Source: reported in The Good Weekend magazine December 2, 2000

Hitler the Artist

Held in the United States Army of Military History are four watercolours by a soldier-artist of the early twentieth century. In the opinion of most art critics these wartime scenes are unexceptional. Historian William Shirer described them as “crude, stilted and lifeless”. Their value lies in the name of the artist in the bottom left hand corner: “A Hitler.”

Adolf Hitler’s name is synonymous with evil and brutality. Yet most people are unaware that before he became a dictator who menaced the world Adolf Hitler made his living selling his own paintings. When he was 18 years old Hitler even applied for admission to the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. He dreamed of becoming a great painter, but despite a flair for drawing, failed the entry tests.

Marylou Gjernes is the former curator of the US Army Art Collection. Reflecting on Hitler’s artworks she says, “It’s a side of him that no-one expects. You don’t expect to see an artist. It’s very incongruous and, in a way, it’s frightening. If someone who can perpetrate such evil can also have this softer side, then who’s to say that possibly isn’t in all of us?”

 

Source: Reported in The Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend magazine June 1, 2002