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My Obedience to Authority.

By Don Canaan

For one hour I administered increasing electrical voltages to a young man with a heart murmur. I tortured him because he refused to correctly answer my questions. The power ranged from 15 to 450 volts.

Alternately screaming and crying in agony, he pleaded with me to let him go. Clad in a robe of obedience to my superior, I prolonged his suffering. Finally the young man died and a child of the 1970s disappeared forever. But I continued pumping voltages into his limp body - 300, 315, 405, until I reached the maximum of 450 volts. I felt he was attempting to fake us out - cheat us, my superior and myself. The room was opened. The young man, electrodes attached to his arm, lay slumped over his chair.

I killed him. I followed the orders of the researcher who had paid me to participate in an experiment. I had become the Gestapo interrogator - resurrecting the secret police mentality which lies dormant in our subconscious. But this was New York City in 1974 - not Berlin in 1934. I was just obeying orders.

This obedience to authority was not in jail, not in a concentration camp. It took place in a graduate psychology laboratory. The lab contained a realistically electrical shock generator. Its voltage switches were labeled in numeric increments and contained descriptive phrases such as "slight shock, anger, severe shock, xxx."

My victim had been previously introduced to me as another volunteer - an unemployed actor. We were to role-play, according to the instructions of a graduate assistant. There was no danger, he said. Even though there might be some screaming, we were told to continue our role-playing as if nothing had happened,

The assistant escorted us into the laboratory and introduced us to the researcher. By means of a lottery drawing, I was appointed the "teacher," the actor as the "learner." Both of us were taken into an adjoining room. My partner was seated at a table facing a curtained window. We were told that the test's purpose was to ascertain whether the association of specific words with the correct choice of four alternative words could be learned and reinforced using electrical shocks.

While the electrode was being attached to my partner's arm, he told the experimenter that, as a child, he had been treated for a slight heart murmur. Our psychological proctor assured him there wasn't any danger and he need not worry.

I was led into the adjoining room with the impressive "shock generator." I was to administer a sample word association test to be followed by the real test. During the sample test my partner answered most of the word associations correctly. The punishment shocks administered did not approach dangerous levels.

During the actual test, many of the answers given were not what the researcher was looking for. As I increased the voltage to 75 volts, I heard brief yelps. For each incorrect answer I increased the voltage by 15. At 120 volts he started to complain verbally. As we reached 150 volts, he demanded to be released from the experiment because his heart was starting to bother him.

At 285 volts a scream of agony pierced the wall separating us, yet I continued the test from the printed card in front of me. The experiment had turned out to be a facade - a blind to observe and videotape my reactions. I was the subject of the experiment.

An innocuous two-line classified ad in New York magazine requested participants for a City University of New York psychology experiment. It paid $3 for the volunteer's time. I called that phone number for an appointment destined to affect my life.

Afterwards, I realized that if I could subjugate myself to a cause, then given the right circumstances, most people would probably do the same.

This experiment was a repeat performance of Stanley Milgram's 1960 Yale University experiment. During that experiment, the participants were not told they would be role-playing and the shocks were not real.

The results were similar. Sixty-five percent of the subjects kept administering shocks up to 450 volts. Sixty-five percent potential Hitlers, Eichmanns and Mengeles. Sixty-five percent who could and would bend with the wind in the name of a cause.

Must we repeat history to learn its lessons?

(Don Canaan, an award-winning journalist, is the editor of He is also the author of 'Horror in Hocking County', 'Alzheimer's Dutiful Daughter' and 'Dedicated Doctor or Baby Broker,' all of which may be found at
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Publication:Israel Faxx
Date:Jan 28, 2014
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