20 December, 2008

Surprise, Surprise!

Dr Jerry Burger, of Santa Clara University, has repeated Stanley Milgram's famous 1960's experiments and found that people are still willing to inflict severe electric shocks on other people just because an 'experimenter' tells them to.

Personally, I'm satisfied that Milgram did a pretty thorough job of investigating this effect and all its various parameters. Of course, it's nice to see replication of the results by others, and this should be encouraged - especially in a field like social psychology. What puzzles me, though, is the headline on the BBC's report of Burger's study: "People 'still willing to torture'." Well, duh! What do you think is going on at Guantanamo Bay? What do you think Mugabe is doing to all the opposition politicians who disappeared recently? What do you think Amnesty keeps banging on about if it isn't the willingness of people everywhere to indulge in torture?

There seems to be a belief, at least among journalists, that human beings will 'evolve' in som spiritual or ethical way and that, over time, we will all become better people. Well I'm sorry guys but evolution doesn't work like that. If not torturing people had survival or reproductive benefits, then it might happen. Sadly, that doesn't seem to be the case.

Our only hope is that our cultures will evolve - or at least learn. Cultures are probably shaped by the same selection processes that shape species. What's more, cultures can change very quickly - unlike species. Yet here too, the elimination of torture from a society would need to have some beneficial impact on that society to make it stick. That is, a culture without torture would need to survive and even spread more easily than one with torture. As yet I see very little evidence for it.

But we can hope.

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