In 1961 Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram began a series of “obedience to authority” experiments to see if people would set aside personal ethics if an authority figure told them to do something. As in, if I tell you to shock someone, would you do it? Milgram rigged a “shock box” and told volunteers that they had to gradually crank up a dial to shock another participant, hidden from view, if the second participant made a mistake on a test. The second participant was really an actor … and was never shocked at all — but as he screamed in mock pain, 65% of the test subjects continued to administer shocks, all the way to a maximum 450 volts.
The study had several goals: to explain the behavior of Nazis in WWII, for instance, and to see if most humans will override personal ethics if compelled to take immoral action by a leader. Religious wars, nationalism, urban gangs, corporate malfeasance and family feuds are all explained by our willingness to obey others more than ourselves.
But we also think Milgram gave a second lesson: how people feel they must try harder and harder to get your attention if moderate shocks fail. This explains children stamping their feet, or Hollywood movies with explicit sex and violence, or advertising campaigns that attempt to startle.
All of which reminds us of this PlaneStupid.com ad campaign to convince you that flying via commercial airlines is bad for polar bears. It’s shocking, perhaps too much.