Trust and rethinking the shock experiment

The classic experiment got volunteers to systematically shock an actor posing as another volunteer. The intensity of the shock supposedly increased from not even noticeable through mild discomfort to extreme pain, eventually ending in a shock that seemed to leave the actor unconscious if the real volunteer continued all the way.

I’m sure you’ve heard of this experiment before. It’s a fairly well cited experiment. The central theme behind it, particularly following the Nazi concentration camps of WWII, is a question of authority, obedience, responsibility, moral obligation, and trust.

How far will we believe what someone in authority says?

While the results of this experiment seem to leave us with a pretty bleak outlook on human behavior, opposite examples could point the other way as well. I’m thinking, for instance, of situations where it can be beneficial to maintain the kind of trust demonstrated by the volunteers who went all the way. For example…

  • Think of the surgeon-in-training who trusts his mentors to make his first incision into a human body.
  • Think of the pharmacist who routinely hands out drugs through a Drive-Thru window, drugs strong enough to kill within a matter of hours.
  • Think of the flight attendant who eagerly welcomes hundreds of travelers on board, just assuming the pilot knows how to fly, just assuming the engineers built the thing properly, just assuming everyone involved knows what they’re doing and has done all they can to get those passengers to their destinations safely.

But it’s not “just assuming,” is it? It’s trust, the kind that often takes lifetimes to build. There are reasons why we build it.

The more I think about it, the more I come up with examples where trusting is actually the better option. It’s what we do every day, just to get by, just to live, without a second thought at this point.

That’s why it’s so insidious of course, because so often trusting is the best option.

I don’t know. I guess I just think it’s important, in our age of skepticism and independent thought and anti-authoritarianism, to remember how vital and valuable it can be to trust. Despite the potential damage it can cause, it goes both ways.

“There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.”  -Søren Kierkegaard

[HT to Steve Pavlina for getting me thinking again.]