fairness and altruism
Fairness and Altruism | by Freepik

In a previous post on The Doctor Weighs In, I discussed the concept of fairness as an organizing principle in human societies. It was examined through the lens of economic: what is the pivotal role fairness and altruism play in an orderly functioning economy.

This begs the question of individual advantage—or put more crudely “what’s in it for me?”—rather than society at large?

Fairness and altruism have been demonstrated in many lower species, all the way to social insects. So it would be interesting to compare our individual behavior to that of non-human primates under similar experimental conditions.


The experiment

Here is the famous Masserman experiment with monkeys:

Rhesus monkeys were trained to pull on one of two chains, depending on the color of a flashing light, in order to receive food. After training, another monkey was displayed through a one-way mirror. By pulling the chains in the correct fashion, the first monkey would receive the food reward, but one of the chains now delivered a powerful and painful electric shock to the floor of the box holding the other monkey. It was discovered that most of the monkeys would not shock another monkey even if it meant not being able to eat. One of the animals went without food for twelve days rather than hurting the other monkey. Monkeys who had been shocked in previous experiments themselves were even less willing to pull the chain and subject others to such torment.

obedience to authority by stanley milgram
Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View by Stanley Milgram | via Amazon.com

And now, the famous Milgram experiment with human volunteers (Milgram, S., 1974. Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. New York: Harper and Row.). Note the similarity in the experimental designs. Milgram recruited subjects for his experiments from various walks in life. Respondents were told the experiment would study the effects of punishment on learning ability. They were offered a token cash award for participating. Although respondents thought they had an equal chance of playing the role of a student or of a teacher, the process was rigged so all respondents ended up playing the teacher. The learner was an actor working with the experimenter.

“Teachers” were asked to administer increasingly severe electric shocks to the “learner” when questions were answered incorrectly. In reality, the only electric shocks delivered in the experiment were single 45-volt shock samples given to each teacher. This was done to give teachers a feeling for the jolts they thought they would be discharging.

Shock levels were labeled from 15 to 450 volts. Besides the numerical scale, verbal anchors were added to the frightful appearance of the instrument. Beginning from the lower end, jolt levels were labeled: “slight shock,” “moderate shock,” “strong shock,” “very strong shock,” “intense shock,” and “extreme intensity shock.” The next two anchors were “Danger: Severe Shock,” and, past that, a simple but ghastly “XXX.”

In response to the supposed jolts, the “learner” (actor) would begin to grunt at 75 volts; complain at 120 volts; ask to be released at 150 volts; plead with increasing vigor, next; and let out agonized screams at 285 volts. Eventually, in desperation, the learner was to yell loudly and complain of heart pain. At some point, the actor would refuse to answer any more questions. Finally, at 330 volts, the actor would be totally silent—that is, if any of the teacher participants got so far without rebelling first.

Teachers were instructed to treat silence as an incorrect answer and apply the next shock level to the student. If, at any point, the innocent teacher hesitated to inflict the shocks, the experimenter would pressure him to proceed. Such demands would take the form of increasingly severe statements, such as “The experiment requires that you continue.”


Results from the experiment

During the Stanley Milgram Experiment, many subjects showed signs of tension. Three subjects had “full-blown, uncontrollable seizures.” Although most subjects were uncomfortable doing it, all 40 subjects obeyed up to 300 volts. Twenty-five of the 40 subjects continued to give shocks until the maximum level of 375 volts was reached.

Before the Stanley Milgram Experiment, experts thought that about 1-3% of the subjects would not stop giving shocks. They thought that you’d have to be pathological or a psychopath to do so. Still, 65% never stopped giving shocks. None stopped when the learner said he had heart trouble. How could that be? We, now, believe that it has to do with our almost innate behavior that we should do as told, especially by authority persons. This is the obvious conclusion, and it is right, as far as it goes.


Digging deeper

I suspect that a lot more can be concluded from these, pardon the pun, shocking experiments. The monkeys refused to torture their brethren even at the cost of starvation. Humans, their “more civilized cousins,” put obedience to authority above the very basic sense of fairness and altruism handed down to them through eons of evolution. Monkeys would never face “Sophie’s choice”—the alpha male of the troop couldn’t conceivably coerce a mother to torture or kill her babies. Unfortunately, humans could, and would.

The problem, I think, is what Senator Patrick Moynihan called “defining deviancy down.” That is, by progressively ratcheting up the coarseness of our discourse, we become inured to its corrosiveness. Escalating the degree of violence in our lives makes it commonplace and acceptable.

The massacre at Columbine high school elicited national shock and outrage. Since then, we have had several killings on campuses of high schools and colleges, with a response that was barely above a collective shrug. Talk radio and Fox News spew intolerance and hatred, conditioning the listeners and viewers into acceptance of such behavior.

During the Tea Party demonstrations against the health care legislation, we saw the ugly fruits of these incitements. One particular video clip on YouTube is still fresh in my mind. A paralyzed man was sitting at the edge of a Tea Party demonstration holding a sign saying, “I need healthcare,” while the self-appointed guardians of the “American way of life” were yelling at him at the top of their lungs. One well-dressed man, looking like a banker or an accountant, was screaming and poking his finger at the man. Would these people obey an incitement to do something much more drastic? I believe so. Or as Milgram’s experiment set out to test: Could the holocaust happen here? Unfortunately, the depressing answer is probably yes.

If this is what “civilization” has wrought, I, for one, would opt for the “primitive” primate sense of fairness.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.



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