Undercover Economist

Brexit, Trump, and how politics loses the capacity to shock

How often do I find myself utterly unsurprised by a news headline that should be shocking? Whether it’s Donald Trump declaring the media to be “the true Enemy of the People” after bombs had been sent to CNN offices, or the UK government planning to charter a flotilla to keep the nation supplied with broccoli and penicillin in a no-deal Brexit scenario, I merely shrug. Of course it’s appalling, I think, but it’s the logical continuation of what has been said and done already.

So let’s talk about the psychologist Stanley Milgram. Milgram is most notorious for his electric shock experiments in the 1960s. He recruited unsuspecting members of the public to participate in a “study of memory”. On showing up at the laboratory, they drew lots with another participant to see who would be “teacher” and who “learner”. Once the learner was strapped into an electric chair, the teacher retreated into another room to take control of a shock machine.

As the learner failed to answer questions correctly, the teacher was asked to administer steadily increasing electric shocks. Many proved willing to deliver possibly fatal shocks — despite having received a painful shock themselves as a demonstration, despite the learner having already complained of a heart condition, despite the screams of pain and the pleadings to be released from the other side of the wall, and despite the fact that the switches on the shock machine read “Danger: Severe Shock, XXX”.

Of course, there were no shocks — the man screaming from the nearby room was pretending. Yet the research exerts a horrifying fascination. In the best known study, 65 per cent of experimental subjects went all the way to 450 volts, applying shocks long after the man in the other room had fallen silent.

In the shadow of the Holocaust, which influenced Milgram’s research agenda, the obvious conclusion was that we will do terrible things if an authority figure requires them. But psychologists no longer draw that lesson from Milgram’s experiment.

Behind The Shock Machine (UK) (US) a history by Gina Perry, reminds us that Milgram’s experimental set-ups varied. In most of them, more than half of participants refused to continue. And Alex Haslam, a psychologist who has re-examined the studies, found that direct orders backfired. When people complied it was not because they were ordered, but because they were persuaded.

One often overlooked detail is that Milgram’s shock machine had 30 settings in increments of 15 volts. It’s hard to object to giving someone a tiny 15-volt shock. And if you’ve decided that 15 volts is fine, then why draw the line at 30 volts? Why draw the line at 45? Why draw the line anywhere?

At 150 volts, the “learner” yelled out in distress. Some people stopped at that point. But those who continued past 150 volts were overwhelmingly likely then to persist to the full 450 volts. They were in too deep. Refusing to administer a shock of 225 volts would be an implicit admission that they had been wrong to deliver 210.

Perhaps we need to turn to another great mid-century psychologist, Leon Festinger, for an explanation. Festinger is best known for the theory of “cognitive dissonance”, the discomfort of holding two contradictory notions — such as “I’m a decent person” and “I just hit that poor guy with 210 volts”.

Festinger demonstrated that we are able to summon up considerable reserves of wishful thinking and selective memory in order to restore consistency. The further people slid into the Milgram experiment, the harder they worked to convince themselves that it was all in a good cause, or that no real harm was being done, or both.

Seeing the experiment described in textbooks half a century later, it still seems perplexing. And perhaps future students of history will be baffled to see recent events concisely summarised. The Republicans, party of “family values”, confirmed a Supreme Court justice nominee after he was accused of sexual assault? Could they really not find someone better?

But these future students will not see the 15-volt increments that got us to this destination. Electing a president who has boasted of his own sexual depredations meant crossing the 150-volt line. Once you’ve found a way to laugh off the issue, it is hard to treat it with gravity thereafter.

Although Brexit is a very different business, it, too, will make little sense to future generations unless they see that we got there 15 volts at a time. It turns out the single market requires free movement of labour? Zap! We’ve discovered that the border with Ireland is a sensitive issue? Zap! The funding of the Leave.EU campaign is being investigated by the National Crime Agency? Zap!

The consolation is that democracies provide us with moments in which we can step back and think about the direction we are taking. The recent US midterm elections were one; there will be others. “I have a choice,” responded one Milgram subject, when ordered to increase the voltage. “I’m not going to go ahead with it.” That is worth remembering.



Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 16 November 2018.

My book “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy” (UK) / “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy” (US) is out now in paperback – feel free to order online or through your local bookshop.

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