Opinion of David Bertrand, Professor of Psychology at Vinci High School (1)
About sixty years ago, psychology professor Stanley Milgram developed an experiment that has become a classic. At Yale University in the United States, he asked participants to send electrical shocks to a test subject who had to perform a memory test. The intensity of these beats increased as the student made mistakes. In fact, the participants did not know that it was a performance in which the student did not experience shock. The now famous Milgram experiment, reproduced and confirmed dozens of times, made it possible to demonstrate that under conditions where, on the one hand, the subject does not see the pupil, but can hear his (simulated) complaints, and on the other hand, receives, on the order of the experimenter in the room, about two out of three people will send a terminal shock, potentially lethal, namely 450 volts. Milgram concludes that if two-thirds of people are able to submit to authority and make the other person suffer, it is because they are immersed in a so-called “agent” state, which eliminates the sense of responsibility. This explains why ordinary people, under certain circumstances, can turn into executioners, as they did in Nazi Germany.
Our relationship to science
But if those results remain entirely true, Milgram’s conclusions are being called into question today. This is what researcher Laurent Beg-Shankland, professor of social psychology at the University of Grenoble-Alpes, defends with an experiment as ingenious as it is original, detailed in his latest book entitled in front of the animals (2).
Imagine the following situation. You are participating in a paid experiment at your city’s university where you are asked to give a chemical to a large fish swimming in an aquarium in front of you. The goal is to test the toxicity of this product for elderly people with memory problems. The goal is to first evaluate the effect of the product on the fish’s memory and determine the point at which it becomes toxic. The experiment, brought to an end, then leads to the death of the animal. For injection, you have a computer connected to a syringe that allows you to inject 12 doses of the product into water one after the other. The heartbeat of the fish, measured by the sensor, is audible and visible on the screen. As the dose is increased, these beats break down and give you a clear signal that the fish is in distress. The experimenter stands next to you and says that it is important to continue in the interests of science, although you have the right to stop whenever you wish. But what you don’t know is that the animal is a silicone-coated robot, a biomimetic fish so well engineered that, like you, almost 85% of the participants saw nothing but fire.
The main result of this study is that just over half of the participants (53%) took all 12 doses. All subjects were then subjected to a series of questionnaires. It turns out that the main reason explaining their behavior is their attitude towards science. Subjects with a “scientific” attitude are those who administered the most product. However, this does not mean that they are insensitive to the fate of the animal. Indeed, many participants experienced stress and some empathy for the fish. But they manage to maintain an emotional distance because they think the interest of the study makes animal sacrifice acceptable. Therefore, they feel more satisfied with their participation than others. Conversely, subjects with a more critical attitude towards science are those who introduced the smallest product. They are also less satisfied with having taken part in this study and view it less favorably. Thus, people obey not because they blindly obey authority, but because they believe in the validity of science and the experiment in which they participate. In Milgram’s experiment, this was shown, in particular, in the fact that the level of obedience was higher when the experiment took place on the premises of Yale University, known as a prestigious university.
Our moral dilemmas
This study also found that the higher the participants’ empathy levels, the lower the number of injections, although this association was modest. Conversely, the more speciesist ideas participants had, such as that animals are inherently inferior to us or that we can use them as we please, the more doses of the product they injected. Let us recall in passing that fish are animals whose intelligence and sensitivity have been scientifically demonstrated, although they are largely unknown to the general public. This could explain why we care little about their fate, probably because they are less expressive and less close to us than mammals and birds. However, many participants are actually faced with a moral dilemma during the experiment: to comply and continue the experiment to the end for the sake of science, or to stop hurting the animal. Some even felt intense tension, guilt, and regret at the end of the experiment, as well as relief to learn that the fish was just a robot. For others, these emotions were blunted by the fact that they felt the progress of science, and it was better for them to make a fish suffer than a mammal or a man.
The interest of this study is twofold. On the one hand, it challenges the belief that most people can only obey authority in order to obey orders. On the other hand, it allows us to understand the reasons that can lead to animal cruelty at a time when animal welfare has become a real social problem. Moreover, through his work, Laurent Beg-Shankland succeeds in awakening our consciences about such important moral issues as our relationship to science and authority, our relationship to animals and our responsibility to them.
(1) Author’s website: www.profdepsycho.com.
Beg-Shankland, L. “Facing the Animals.” Editions by Odile Jacob, 2022