Many people would like to think that, if put in a certain situation, they would always do the right thing no matter the circumstances. However, social experiments such as the Good Samaritan Experiment (Darley and Batson,1973), the Milgram Shock Experiment (1963), and the Stanford Prison Experiment (Zimbardo,1973) give psychologists results that say otherwise. The majority of the unknowing participants in these three experiments showed a surprising lack of compassion for a fellow human who (as far as the participant knew) was in pain or in a position of helplessness in which they needed the participants’ mercy or aid. The subject not only ignored the needs of the individuals, but in the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram Shock Experiment, the participants administered physical and psychological pain upon an individuals who were innocent. Due to these finding it can be stated that moral conscience is in fact present in everyone, but one can easily not act upon it or even contradict it if put in a certain situation.
In the Good Samaritan Experiment, the subjects were students of a religious boarding school. They were recruited to a classroom to fill out a personality survey. Then after taking the survey, they would be told to go to another room for the second part of the study. The subjects were divided into three groups. One groups would be told that they were running late for the second part. The second group would be told that they were on time and the third group would be told they were ahead of schedule. On their way there, the subject would see a man slumped in a doorway who would ask for help. This is a part of the experiment the subject is unaware of. This man is an actor. Now one would expect that all students would stop to help the man and reflect the virtues and beliefs of their religion. However, the Golden Rule to do unto others as they would do unto you was easily disregarded if the student was told they were late. Only 10% of the students who were in a hurry stopped to help the man. Of the students who were told they were on time, 45% of them helped. Sixty-three percent of students who were told they were ahead of schedule stopped to help. These numbers are highly disturbing. What does it say about human nature if one can ignore another individual’s need just to make it on time? Did the subjects who passed the man not have any compassion for the man? Apparently they did. Darley and Batson recorded that many of the subjects that passed the man arrived at the second room distraught or anxious. As if they knew very well they should’ve helped the man but their concern to make it on time for their own self-interest was more important to them.
If being late is enough for someone to disregard an individual’s need for help, what if the individual thought he or she was part of an important psychological study? Would that be enough for one to disregard their moral conscience as well? This is answered in the Milgram Shock Experiment. In this experiment, the subject believes he is taking part in an experiment that studies the effects punishment has on learning, as far as he or she knows, there is another subject who plays the role of “learner”. Although he is actually an actor just like the slumped man in the doorway of the Good Samaritan Experiment. The learner would be asked to seat and strap themselves into a chair that doesn’t look too different from an electric chair. The subject is told he will play the role of “teacher”. The teacher’s job is to administer an electric shock through the chair by flipping a switch every time the learner gets a question wrong. The questions are memory based, so prior knowledge isn’t required to get the questions right. The teacher is given a sample shock so he or she knows the shocks aren’t too bad. After every wrong answer, the shocks get stronger. The teacher is told that none of the shocks are fatal or dangerous. However, prior to the experiment, the subject meets the man he or she thinks is also a participant in the elevator on their way to the room the experiment. Through casual conversation, the actor informs the individual that he has heart condition. Now most would assume that this information is pretty important if one would be going to be receiving electrical shocks, yet none of the subjects inform the experimenter of the learner’s heart condition. Even worse, after the point where the shocks are so strong the learner begins to yelp in pain and complain of his heart condition, the teacher, instead of using his or her own judgement, would look to the experimenter for guidance. The experimenter, who wants to see how far one would go to please authority, explains the importance of the experiment and strongly urges the teacher to continue with the experiment.
Of the 40 subjects, 25 listened and continued to administer stronger shocks after every wrong answer to the highest voltage on the machine. Now it should be noted that the teacher was obviously distressed as he was administering each shock. Yet, the majority of the subjects kept it up instead of voicing their doubts and refusing to continue for the sake of their moral conscience. These are frightening results, any ethical person would like to think they would stand up to the experimenter and refuse to continue, however these weren’t unethical people. They were average people, not psychopaths or people who lacked compassion. Put in this situation, their ethics became second to their desire to please the experimenter. After the experiment was over, the subjects who continued to the end would show signs of great relief after discovering the learner was all right. Yet, if they cared so much, why didn’t they stop? What does this say about human compassion if one is able to not act upon it just to please someone in an authoritative role?
So far, the reader has seen how one can easily walk right by a fellow human in need in the Good Samaritan Experiment and how one can ever administer painful electrical shocks to an innocent individual in the Milgram Shock Experiment. What if one was chosen to be a guard for a mock prison and it was their job to be a little unfair and unethical to play the part. Many would say that they would never take the role too seriously, but the results of the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment contradict this idea. Of the three experiments, the Stanford Prison Experiment is the most unnerving of them all. 21 college age men were chosen for this experiment. There were two groups, “guards” and “prisoners”. The plan was that for two weeks the prisoners would be held in a mock prison held in a hallway at Stanford University. For the experiment to work it was the participants job to play their part effectively and not break character. However, within six days it had to be stopped due to things getting out of control. The guards and prisoner began to act as if they were in a real prison. On just the second day prisoners started to rebel, as if they truly were in a prison and there was no escape. Guards used sadistic tactics to keep prisoners in line and a couple prisoners even had breakdowns due to this mistreatment. An otherwise ordinary and ethical man turned into a harsh and cruel prison guard, and for what justification? It was a merely a psychological experiment, yet the participants, (particularly the guards) took it so far.
Looking at these three experiments, it is evident that it is too easy for an individual to ignore their internal ethical code. As a society one must ask why is it that we can act against our moral conscience even though it is clear that it is there. What was the boarding school student thinking as he passed the man slumped in the doorway? Could he have really been thinking that being on time was more important? What was the teacher in the Milgram Shock Experiment thinking as he or she kept flipping the switch? Was he or she really thinking that it was ethical to put someone through so much pain for the sake of a psychology experiment? Most frightening of all, what about the guards in the Stanford Prison Experiment? Did they think it was right to play the role of sadistic prison guard so well? Did they justify their behavior to themselves as they mistreated the prisoners? These are questions that psychologists look at quite recent examples of human history such as the genocides in Darfur or the horrible killing commited by the militias of the Central African Republic. The Good Samaritan Experiment was inspired by the tragic story of Kitty Genovese. The Milgram Shock Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment were inspired by the horrors of the holocausts. Psychologists thought these experiments could explain these unacceptable human acts, however we are left with more questions than answers. Since the day we’re born, we’re raised to do good and treat others as we would like to be treated, but as we are put in certain situations it seems that we can disregard what we were taught. This is worrisome. If we can disregard our moral conscience, who knows what we’re capable of when put in the right situation. In order for humanity to progress as a whole, we must ask ourselves what it will take to integrate an internal code of ethics that cannot be ignored or disregarded. If we do that, it would be a big step for humanity.