Post by Ruthanna Gordon
I’m wrapping up seven years of classroom teaching this week. I’m going full time into science communication and policy, so I’m not exactly getting away from education. Still, it’s the sort of thing that makes one thoughtful. And I find, when I think about my time in the classroom, that storytelling has been wound through it all.
My graduate advisor was a storyteller—her introductory psychology course had a real reputation. If the topic was problem solving, she’d have the students rolling in the aisles while she explained how she got a squirrel out of her house with a vacuum cleaner. If the topic was consciousness, we TAs would check the doors surreptitiously for visiting administrators while she talked about her own experiences with altered states. I picked up the habit myself. Most of the time, I tell funny stories: “How Professor Gordon Used Old Issues of X-Men to Improve Her Memory,” or “What Professor Gordon Did When the Cloth Ceiling of Her Junkheap Car collapsed.” But some of the most powerful stories are more serious.
At the beginning of a course, a lot of students—engineers, architects, and physicists looking to pick up an easy credit—are dubious about the whole idea of psychology as a science. It’s not really like a standard lab science, after all. Human minds are fuzzy and hard to pin down, and no one really wants to think that free will is predictable. Or maybe it’s so predictable that no science is necessary. Isn’t psychological “research” just a matter of confirming things that everyone knows intuitively?
So I tell them a story.
Imagine that you’re a student, perennially broke and looking for a chance to earn a little extra cash. You see a sign posted one day, for an experiment on memory. They’re paying a few dollars, not anything spectacular but enough to buy lunch. It will take less than an hour, so why not?
You arrive at the lab at the appointed time. The place is very posh—obviously well-funded, with thick carpets and curtains, and lots of little rooms connected by intercoms and one-way mirrors. There’s another subject there as well, signed up for the same time slot. He’s an older fellow, a little bit balding and shaky, but you chat for a few minutes while you wait, and he seems sweet and likeable.
Finally the experimenter arrives. He passes around the consent forms, and lets you know that he’s studying the effect of punishment on memory. As in many psychology experiments, “punishment” consists of electric shock—a tradition that dates back to the early behaviorists. He’s a bit short on assistants right now, so one of you is going to be the learner, who tries to memorize pairs of words and gets punished if you miss any. The other will be the teacher who reads out words for memorization, and administers the shock when necessary. The experimenter himself will be timing responses and taking notes. The two of you pick roles out of a hat, and you have to admit you’re a bit relieved when you draw the role of the teacher.
The experimenter leads the two of you into the learner’s room, where there’s a chair with electrode hook-ups. You get a sample shock yourself, at the lowest level of 15 volts. It feels a bit like touching a doorknob on a dry winter day. The older fellow gets hooked up, and you’re led into the next room, where there’s a list of words, an intercom, and the control panel for the electrode array. The panel consists of a series of switches for increasing levels of shock, ranging from the static you just experienced all the way up to 450 volts—that end is marked with a red Danger sign.
You’re ready to begin. The experimenter explains the rules: you’ll read the words in pairs, and the learner is to memorize which words go together. Every time he gets a pair wrong, you give him the next highest level of shock—presumably increasing his motivation to avoid future errors.
The first couple of pairs, the learner gets right. But he seems nervous, and he starts to make mistakes. The first couple of times aren’t too bad, but as the voltage increases he starts to grunt, then to cry out in pain. At 150 volts, he’s had enough—he tells you, over the intercom, that he wants out of the experiment. You glance back at the experimenter, busy scribbling notes.
“Keep going,” he says. “It’s important to finish the experiment.”
What do you do?
(At this point, you can picture the sea of hands in response—28 students who say they’d stop, and 2 who think it’s shocking to say they wouldn’t.)
If you do keep going, the cries of pain get worse. The learner refuses to give answers; the experimenter tells you, again and again, that the study must be completed. Finally the learner screams and goes silent. The experimenter tells you to keep going…
Some of you may recognize the Milgram shock experiments by now. If so, you know that the “learner” is a confederate of the experimenter, and not receiving any actual shocks. The “teacher” is the true subject, and the question is how willing people are to harm others—simply because an authority tells them to. The answer turns out to be that they are very willing: 65% turned up the voltage all the way to the Danger sign in spite of believing that the learner was seriously injured, possibly dead.
This is not intuitive. Ask a room of people who don’t know the results, and they’ll guess that maybe 1% or fewer would obey. Not normal people. Only the rare psychopaths. Only the monsters.
Running the experiment, and learning this nonintuitive truth about humanity, is important. It helps us to be on guard against our inner monsters, and to remember that questioning authority is possible. It helps us to be better people. And that, I tell my students, is why we do science.