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Monday Night Milgram? What psychology says about Seth Rollins' sway over Murphy

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Monday Night Milgram? What psychology says about Seth Rollins’ sway over Murphy

Murphy’s willingness to blind Aleister Black isn’t all that shocking — or is it?

Seth Rollins’ “Monday Night Messiah” character has made him more compelling than he has been in ages, even if the outcome of his latest pay-per-view match-up was a little … eye-rolling.

The cult-like personality has been given a lot of leeway to grow, though his flock of followers has diminished as of late. Still, the most devoted remains, and Murphy proved his loyalty two weeks ago on Raw by injuring Aleister Black’s eye at the insistence of his dear leader.

While he momentarily balked, Rollins’ acolyte did complete the dirty deed. “Murphy himself was shocked at what he was able to do,” color commentator Samoa Joe remarked.

One person wouldn’t be surprised at all — Stanley Milgram.

Inspired by the idea of Nazi soldiers “just following orders,” the (in)famous Milgram Experiment of the early 1960s was developed to see how far ordinary people will go to remain obedient to authority. The first instance tested 40 people, but eventually hundreds of different subjects would be told they were taking part in an important study on human memory, assisting the “experimenter” in evaluating a “learner.”

But the “learner” was in on the act, and deliberately biffed the memory questions to see if the “teacher” — who was, in fact, the real subject of the experiment — would administer electric shocks to the learner as punishment, as directed by the experimenter. The subject was instructed to give more and more powerful shocks, all the way up to 450 volts, even though they could hear shouts of protest from the learner, and in some later versions, the learner would even yell that he had a heart condition.

Of course there were no real electric shocks, but the subjects didn’t know that (allegedly — more on that later). In the first experiment, 65% of the subjects went all the way to the final, 450-volt shock, and everyone made it at least to the penultimate 300-volt penalty. Milgram used these results to argue that, yes, people can easily be made to do horrible things, so the Holocaust wasn’t actually all that surprising.

The Milgram Experiment has been a hallmark of psychology textbooks ever since, but there were always issues with it, and more serious concerns have been brought to light in recent years.

Firstly, Milgram’s need to link his work to the Holocaust overlooks that by his own records, every subject was clearly told the learner would not incur permanent damage from the shocks, and even then they showed great remorse and conflict during the experiment. Needless to say, that wasn’t exactly the case with most of the Nazi soldiers at concentration camps.

Such a ghoulish and physically distressful experiment wouldn’t fly by today’s ethical standards, and Milgram’s subjects may not have even been properly debriefed afterward. This makes replicating the study all but impossible, though a 2007 experiment, prodded by the disgraceful behavior of U.S. soldiers at the Abu Ghraib Iraqi detention center, was allowed to let subjects believe they had administered 150-volt shocks, with a similar obedience rate as that of the original Milgram experiments.

If that even was his data. Psychologist Gina Perry went back to Milgram’s original notes in 2012 and found that “only half of the people who undertook the experiment fully believed it was real and of those, 66% disobeyed the experimenter.” Sociologist Matthew Hollander additionally quibbles with Milgram’s binary description of subjects as either “obedient” or “disobedient,” saying the broad range of responses in his own recordings casts serious doubt on Milgram’s conclusion that we can all have the “evil switch” flipped within a matter of moments.

milgram test subject

The face of evil?

Look, it’s hard to turn on the news these days and not decide that people are universally sh*tty, or at the very least easily led to sh*ttiness, but we probably shouldn’t use things like Milgram and Kitty Genovese to bolster that conclusion. Genovese, of course, was the woman murdered in 1964 in front of 38 witnesses who never did anything to help, leading to the enshrining of the “bystander effect,” the idea that the more witnesses there are to a crime, the less likely any one of them is to actually report it.

Fifty years later, The New York Times threw shade on their own reporting, essentially debunking that entire narrative:

While there was no question that the attack occurred, and that some neighbors ignored cries for help, the portrayal of 38 witnesses as fully aware and unresponsive was erroneous. The article grossly exaggerated the number of witnesses and what they had perceived. None saw the attack in its entirety. Only a few had glimpsed parts of it, or recognized the cries for help. Many thought they had heard lovers or drunks quarreling … And afterward, two people did call the police.

So maybe we can still hope that some people aren’t all bad. Murphy definitely hesitated before completing his heinous task, and has since seemed troubled by it at times. Here’s hoping he comes to his senses and exercises some serious disobedience against Rollins in the near future.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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