Imagine you’ve volunteered for a study. You’re paired with another volunteer, someone you’ve never met, but you introduce yourself and he seems nice enough. The two of you will be working together to demonstrate the relationship between punishment and learning. One of you, the Learner, will learn word pairings and recall them when asked. The other, the Teacher, will be responsible for administering an electric shock to the Learner after each mistake.
You draw the role of Learner and are given the list of words to study. When you ask about the electric shocks, you’re told while they can be painful, there will be “no permanent tissue damage.” While somewhat concerning, you figure you can always stop if it becomes too painful. The Teacher and researcher then retire to another room that’s connected via intercom and begin asking test questions. With each wrong answer, the Teacher delivers the promised electric shock.
You quickly notice that with each wrong answer, the shocks increase by 15 volts. An unnoticeable tingle slowly turns into discomfort, which then becomes serious pain. As you shout into the intercom, “I’m done! Let me out of here!” the only response is the Teacher’s disembodied voice asking the next question.
You scream at the Teacher to stop, but your response only brings another electrical shock. Real panic grips you. You beg for your release. But the only response is continued questions and the now paralyzing shocks of electricity, increasing into ranges that will soon be fatal. As consciousness leaves you, you’re left wondering just what kind of monster is the person who keeps delivering these shocks.
To some this sounds like a nightmare. Others may recognize it as the experiment designed by Stanley Milgram in 1961. The only difference being that in the actual experiment, no shocks were ever delivered. The Learner was an actor. The real study participant was the Teacher and the cause of the experiment wasn’t to test learning and punishment, but to see how long people would continue to harm another human being simply because they were told to do so.
The results weren’t encouraging for humanity. A full 65% of participants continued to apply shocks through the final 450-volt charge.
Milgram found that when people are directed by a new authority, they are remarkably receptive to do things they otherwise would not, including actions that harm and even kill others.
But the importance of these results isn’t limited to authoritarian influence. There’s another part that affects us all every day.
Do We Value Robots More Than People?
Now imagine someone asks you to hit a piece of metal with a hammer. Most people wouldn’t have an ethical issue with this. And very few people would value the safety of a machine over that of another person.
But Kate Darling of the MIT Media Lab proved differently. In one experiment, she had a group of individuals play with PLEO robots and give them names. After an hour, she told them to destroy the robots. They refused. People became protective of their robots and refused to let them come to harm.
Darling provided similar levels of authority as Milgram. But while Milgram’s subjects were willing to apply harmful actions to other people, her group refused to harm a robot. A toy that while cute and interactive is not actually alive.
It’s not that we value robots more than people. The difference is in how we rationalize new behaviors. And how it’s not the result of one major action, but the product of many incremental changes.
Evil Begins with 15 Volts
Milgram recognized that people are more likely to take a significant action if it’s preceded by a series of less significant increments. By starting with 15 volts, participants were able to rationalize that it wasn’t harmful. Each subsequent shock was only a small incremental increase, reducing the relative impact of each action.
In contrast, Darling asked her group to destroy the PLEO robots outright. There was no slow buildup. The relative change from playing with a robot to mutilating it with a hammer was enough of a contrast to cause people to resist.
Our brains employ this same mechanism every day. As Daniel Gilbert describes in Stumbling on Happiness,
“The human brain is not particularly sensitive to the absolute magnitude of stimulation, but it is extraordinarily sensitive to differences and changes—that is, to the relative magnitude of stimulation.”
We notice relative changes. We don’t pay attention to absolute magnitudes. When the relative change remains small, we don’t recognize the impact.
Similarly, we tend to compare today’s choices with past decisions instead of possible alternatives. Instead of trying to imagine the full range of possible responses to a given scenario, we take the easy route and compare this decision to how we’ve handled similar decisions in the past.
As Gilbert also describes, “Because it is so much easier for me to remember the past than to generate new possibilities, I will tend to compare the present with the past even when I ought to be comparing it with the possible.”
These tendencies both limit our ability to recognize minute behavioral changes and use past behaviors to weight future decisions.
In this way, it’s easy to see how people can continue unhealthy lifestyles and continue working in dead-end jobs. As the day-to-day change becomes unnoticeable and our minds compare today’s experience to yesterday’s, there’s little reason for alarms to start going off.
In Milgram’s study, the biggest difference in magnitude was with the first 15-volt shock. Once someone took that step, each subsequent shock became less of a relative change. And became easier to rationalize.
It’s in that first step that we need to be vigilant. It’s that first step that puts us on a path.
The Curious Case of Robert Ruks
What would compel someone with no criminal background to endanger the lives of thousands of people?
In 2011, Robert Ruks was charged with doing this very thing and sentenced to 37 months in prison. His crimes included fraudulently approving nearly 10,000 welds on six U.S. submarines.
Multiple welds were later found to be insufficient, including several that were critical to the submarine’s safety. Ruks’ actions to approve these welds without inspecting them jeopardized the lives of thousands of U.S. sailors.
It’s unlikely that Ruks started his career with the intent of falsifying records, jeopardizing lives, and ending up in prison. It’s more likely that one day he took a shortcut. Maybe he was behind schedule and didn’t give one weld a full inspection. Maybe he justified it by saying that he knew the welder was good and it wasn’t an important joint.
But it would have started with one compromised inspection. One sacrifice of his standards. Which made the next one even easier.
Once he took the first step, each step after that was just continuing along the path. A path that eventually put him in prison.
Watch That First Step
No one gains fifty pounds in one day. It’s a slow change. It often starts with taking a day off from exercising. Then another. Then eating less healthy. Each day gaining an amount that’s negligible enough to go unnoticed. Until it all eventually adds up.
Our falls start with minor events. They come from a series of insignificant compromises. As former Navy SEAL Jocko Willink describes in Disciple Equals Freedom: Field Manual,
“It isn’t that you wake up one day and decide that’s it: I am going to be weak. No. It is a slow incremental process. It chips away at our will—it chips away at our discipline.”
Skip exercising today, it’s easier to skip tomorrow too.
Don’t challenge poor performance now, it’s easier to let it slide again next time.
Eat junk food for breakfast, we’re more likely to do so again at lunch.
Deliver substandard work this time, we’ve lowered the standard for tomorrow’s work as well.
Choose convenient over right today, and that becomes our new path. A path that once we’re on, becomes increasingly easy to maintain.
Take Positive Action
As negative behaviors start with incremental changes, so do positive. As important as it is to be vigilant against these slips in our standards, it’s just as important to recognize this opportunity for positive change.
That first step doesn’t need to be negative. We can consciously make that decision to start a positive practice. And use that first step to put us on a better path.
Wake up early and start exercising.
Turn down those free doughnuts that are all over the office.
Question our existing standards and see how we can demand better of ourselves.
Start the process to learning that new skill we’ve been considering.
Figure out where we’re making excuses for poor performance and take an action to confront it.
Ask ourselves where we’ve been choosing convenient over right and take one step to reverse that trend.
Take one positive step today. And let that be our new path.