It's rather very unusual to write about a social issue in a scientific blog. But, as a fellow human being, it becomes a right as well as responsibility for each of us think beyond the superficiality of events.
I was awakened by a phone call in the middle of last Friday night. I am always skeptical and a bit apprehensive when my phone rings breaking the deadly silence of late night. It was one of my best friends living in France. My first response was to let him know my displeasure for such a late night call. As I reproached him in my sleepy voice, he replied in a voice that was unusually trembling and panicky. First he assured me he was quite safe, but went on to describe that it was chaos on Parisian streets that night. There were sounds of explosions and shootouts, people screaming and vehicles honking. Though he had no idea what was going on, from what he described, both of us thought France was at war. It was only in the following morning, when news channels across the globe started pouring in information about multiple attacks in Paris did I understand the real gravity of that situation and immense danger my friend was in being couple of blocks away from the Bataclan Concert Hall the previous night. At this juncture, I thought it would be interesting to write my pondering in this regard.
I was fortunate to attend a lecture on evolutionary psychology by celebrated psychoanalyst Philip Zimbardo during one of my visits to Stanford University a few years back. He was explaining about the ‘Lucifer effect’ on why good people turn evil. Human behavior, being incredibly pliable, is known to change according to situational influences. The infamous Prison Experiment of Zimbardo in 1971 drew attention of the world to this aspect. In his experiment, volunteers were randomly assigned the roles of prisoners and guards and were taken into a makeshift dungeon set up in Zimbardo's lab. The experimenters were surprised to see the extent to which guards tortured the prisoners to make them obey authorities and bring them under control. Though the ethical standards of this experiment were questioned worldwide, this was an eye opener to the psychology behind how and why normal people derive sadistic pleasure through situational influences.
A decade before carrying out Prison Experiment, Zimbado's high school friend and renowned social psychologist and behavioral analyst Stanley Milgram had conducted another experiment at Yale University to study compulsive obedience of human beings. Milgram experiment also gained quite a lot of controversy and criticism over its ethical standards. The experimenters assigned ordinary people as teachers and prepared actors as learners. Upon strict instructions from the experimenter, the teacher was to teach the learner a set of words. Each time a learner made a mistake, the corresponding teacher would induce a shock to learner. The voltage of the shock was serially increased as learner made mistakes through the experiment. Even though teacher would give shock, the experiment was so set up that learner did not actually receive any shock but only pretended to receive shock. Though both of them wouldn't see each other, they could hear each other. Teacher could clearly hear learner crying out in pain as shock was inflicted on him each time. At one point, the actor pretending to be learner would go listless after high voltage shock. If teacher stopped teaching and punishing and wanted to stop experiment, he was forced by the experimenter to continue. The results of Milgram experiment, when published in Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology in 1963, were received with awe and shock by the whole world as it unraveled the darker side of human behavior. In simple terms, the study results showed that any human being, when forced by an authority, was willing to undertake extreme corporal punishment to fellow human beings without contemplating the logic behind it. The response from the tortured in the form of painful cries and listlessness didn't change the behavior of torturer much, but definitely took them through extreme stress and anxiety.