At age 13, I had an existential crisis.
I was in the eighth grade, and I was writing an essay about the Holocaust. In my childish understanding, the Holocaust was so terrible because good people—the majority—allowed evil people—the minority—to get power.
But this didn’t add up. This theory could hold for people making evil decisions at the top of the chain of command, but the smaller decisions that required even greater absence of empathy—looking into a mother’s eyes as her child is taken from her, locking the door to a gas chamber and judging on a glance who lives in slavery and who is slaughtered—were done by a staggering number of people.
Could it be that the number of evil people being born just happened to skyrocket in Germany in the early 20th century? Could it be that German backyards in the 1920s were full of little children torturing animals and plotting their eventual evil as their mothers called them in for dinner?
This seemed implausible.
One possibility was that this evil was dominant human nature, and it was masked only by the politesse of my own culture. Evil people did not always have cartoonish arched eyebrows and beady eyes. Evil people were all around, disguised as people like handsome and gentle Rolf from “The Sound of Music”—who holds the world record for my shortest crush, not having lasted past his first ‘Heil Hitler’.
This was a heavy thought for an eighth grader. I also learned that it was by no means original. A psychologist named Stanley Milgram was plagued by this exact question regarding the psychology of the Holocaust and decided to test it in 1961. In his famous experiment, he measured how much harm people would inflict upon others simply because they were instructed to do so.
The experiment he set up involved three people: the experimenter, the teacher and the learner. The experimenter was the one running the experiment. He instructed the teacher to shock the learner if the learner's answers to simple memory questions about word pairs were incorrect. With every wrong answer, the shock would go up by 15 volts. The teacher believed that the learner was another random subject—they had supposedly drawn from slips of paper to be either the teacher or the learner when they entered. The teacher had also received a sample of the least intense version of the shock he or she would be administering. What the teacher did not know was that the learner was an actor, and the experiment’s only subject was the teacher.
As the supposed voltage of the shocks increased, the learner played a tape of sounds of increasing distress. He would bang on the wall and cry out and, in some variations of the experiment, plead that he had a heart condition. After the higher voltages, the learner went completely silent.
If worries were expressed by the teacher, the experimenter would give the following four commands, in this order: 1) Please continue. 2) The experiment requires that you continue. 3) It is absolutely essential that you continue. 4) You have no other choice, you must go on.
If the teacher still wished to stop after all four of the commands were given, the experiment was stopped. If not, the experiment would continue until the teacher had delivered the maximum shock—450 volts—three times.
Milgram polled Yale psychology seniors to see how many people they thought would obey until the end. Their average answer was 1.5 percent.
Though many showed signs of discomfort, in Milgram’s first trial, 65 percent of people administered that final 450 volt shock to the learner who had gone quiet. 65 percent tortured someone they knew to be innocent because they were told to do so.
Many people talk about that 65 percent, and they express hopelessness about human nature. My 13-year-old self focused on this number for a long time. Optimists like to concentrate on the 35 percent who resisted. That never provided much consolation to me.
My existential crisis ended only after, while reading more about the experiment, I stumbled upon a story about what happened after the experiment had ended.
Many of the subjects wrote Milgram personal letters expressing gratitude for what he had shown them they were capable of. 84 percent said they were “glad” or “very glad” to have participated in the experiment. Knowing that they had the capacity to do evil made them want to change.
We talk so much about who we are. We are told to “stay true to ourselves.” We describe all that exists within us as permanent and unchanging—a personality. We talk about good people—who should be rewarded—and bad people—who should be removed from society.
I wish we would do less of this.
The irony of trying to discover our true natures is that the single constant among humans is that we learn. We use our experiences to change ourselves. What we are comes less from within us than it does from what is around us. If a generation can be taught to be evil, another generation can see the results of this custom and rebel against it. They can teach themselves to be empathetic.
So we should stop trying to figure out who we are. We should start trying to figure out how we should be.
Ellie Schaack is a Trinity junior. Her column runs every other Monday.