All evil begins with fifteen volts

I knew Phil Zimbardo is a world class psychologist and the author of Stanford prison experiment, the most famous study of human behaviour in history. Many has been written and movie was made about it too.

What I did not know (sorry for my ignorance) is that this guy is still alive, active and has recently visited Prague for a kick-ass lecture. He wrote more than 50 books and has been recently interviewed in Tim Ferriss podcast, which I listen to on a daily basis.

However, what grabbed my attention was not the Stanford experiment (I’ve seen the movie and read the book as well), but the Milgram study.

What was it about?

That experiment with electric shocks

In this study, participants were seated in a room with this box containing 30 switches and were asked to give electric shocks to a person sitting next to them (The shocks were fake, but they did not know about it).

The first switch gave the subject a shock of 15 Volts (≈ almost nothing) and then it gradually increased by 15V every time, up to 450 Volts at the end (≈ very high voltage — can kill a person). The authority insisting that participants have to continue with the experiment was present the whole time. What do you think:

How many participants have continued to the very end?

My estimate was 10%.

What I did not expect is that 2 out of 3 participants have continued torturing unknown man they just met to a full extent (450V), just because they were told to do so.

It’s disturbing how fragile people are when facing similar challenges.

Next time when you became a fare dodger, cheat in school or smile on a racist joke, try to think of consequences your action might cause.

If you mindlessly take the first step on a slippery slope of evil, what’s going to keep you from pressing the next button?

You never know when you start avoiding taxes, cheating your loved one or become a racist.

So the next time when you are facing a dillema whether to do something or not, try to think of the consequences this could have.


This article is the part of my creative writing challenge. One sentence every day. 30 posts. Follow me to find out more.