A little over a year ago, I published the below blog entry. It came to mind again given the news that a French television station had reproduced a version of the Milgram experiment as some sort of commentary on reality TV. This is how the BBC reported it. There may be some point to be made about why 81 per cent of people were prepared to electrocute a stranger to death when urged to do so by a presenter and a TV audience compared to a mere 65 per cent when told they had no alternative by a bloke in a white coat, but then again maybe not.
You’re probably aware of the experiment performed by Stanley Milgram in which volunteers were asked by men in white coats to administer what they believed were electric shocks to another person. Around two-thirds of the volunteers agreed to deliver what they knew to be potentially fatal shocks to the subject, who they could hear screaming and begging for them to stop. What they didn’t know was the person they were agreeing to inflict this on was in fact an actor. And nobody knows what the results might have been if they’d known the actor was Whoopi Goldberg.
Milgram’s experiment stands as the most famous example of a series of studies that have attempted to highlight the willingness of humans to bow to authority figures and comply with group norms irrespective of what their own morals might tell them. One of the most telling of these was carried out by two American researchers called John Darley and Bibb Latane in 1968.
The two men’s work was partly inspired by a notorious 1964 American murder in which a woman called Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death by a serial rapist and murderer. The murder took place over a period of around half an hour, during which dozens of witnesses who watched the crime from their windows failed to help the victim.
What Darley and Latane found was that while solitary individuals will typically intervene if another person is in need of help, that tendency diminishes proportionately with the number of people who are present. In some situations, a large group of bystanders may fail to help a person who obviously needs help.
Darley and Latane first demonstrated this so-called ‘bystander effect’ in the laboratory. One of the studies they used was to place a subject alone in a room who is then told he can communicate with other subjects through an intercom. In reality, he is just listening to an audio recording and is told his microphone will be off until it is his turn to speak. During the recording, one subject suddenly pretends he is having a heart attack or seizure. The study found that how long the subject waits before alerting the experimenter varies inversely with the number of other subjects. In some cases, the subject never told the experimenter at all.
This type of behaviour and the contrast between the behaviour of people as individuals and the same people’s behaviour in groups has an ongoing fascination for social scientists. In organisations this is often defined as groupthink, based in something called the Abilene paradox, a famous thought experiment which demonstrates how individuals will go along with an idea that they think is wrong or which they don’t want to do for some other reason.
This is far more than a thought experiment of course. The thinking is most evidently and often cited in reference to the Nazis, most notoriously in the case of Adolf Eichman for whom the phrase the ‘banality of evil was coined.
The Bay of Pigs invasion is classically cited as an example of groupthink. You could also claim that the Iraq war is the result of groupthink. In the business world, groups of people have gone along with appalling behaviour. So apparent is this that Joel Bakan produced a book and film a couple of years ago based on the central thesis that organisations are inherently psychotic in that they are designed to pursue narrow goals in a way that allows them to ignore what appears to be basic morality.
More sober commentators have pointed to this as evidence that companies are behaving in a morally neutral way and that modish efforts to pursue goals of corporate social responsibility are not really what companies should be about. But increasingly they are. And although in some respects this is rightly criticised as greenwashing as a marketing tool, many companies and individuals behave in a commendably altruistic manner. Most eye-catching in this respect have been Warren Buffett who is reported to have given away over $37 billion of shares to various charitable foundations and Bill Gates who it is reported has donated around $29 billion.
Of course few of us can afford to match this. But we can break ourselves out of groupthink, the bystander effect and pluralistic ignorance. Darley and Latane, the two men responsible for proving the existence of this sort of behaviour also proved how we can escape it. There are five steps.
1. Notice something is happening
2. Interpret this as something where help is needed
3. Assume personal responsibility
4. Decide what action to take
5. Take action.