One of the most famous clinical studies in psychology was Yale University professor Stanley Milgram’s work, published in 1963, on the willingness of people to inflict excruciating pain on others. The new test shows that 70% of people were willing to increase the voltage for an actor who pretended to be screaming in pain from electric shocks.
The “Milgram test” was a shocker not just the recipients. It seemed to confirm a natural willingness — even a desire — to inflict high levels of pain. As the world debates the Bush torture program, the study comes at an important time. It was long presumed that a torture program would be harder to order in western countries like the United States given the cultural and moral objections to the practice. The Bush Administration proved that it had no difficulty in finding torturers or ordering waterboarding. Indeed, Cheney casually confirmed his ordering of torture recently on television.
The new study by American Psychology showed the same results as Milgram. “Some volunteers even carried on giving 450-volt shocks even when there was no further response from the actor, suggesting he was either unconscious or dead.”
I will be giving the annual Weiss lecture in 2009 to the American Psychological Association and Foundation in Toronto and will be discussing this subject.
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