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Like the coronavirus, courage is contagious

Dear Sir,

Have you ever read or heard of the Milgram Experiments?

In 1961, Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale, started conducting experiments to examine the justifications for acts of genocide offered by those accused at the Nuremberg War Crimes trials. The defendants mostly said that their actions were based on obedience; ie, following their superiors' orders.

In Milgram’s experiments, subjects — ordinary people who responded to a newspaper advertisement — were told that they were participating in an educational study and they were to administer shocks to another person each time that person answered a question incorrectly.

The person telling the subjects to administer the shocks was dressed as an authority figure — in this case, a researcher wearing a lab coat. This authority figure gave four prods to ensure the subject continued:

Prod 1: Please continue

Prod 2: The experiment requires you to continue

Prod 3: It is absolutely essential that you continue

Prod 4: You have no other choice but to continue

The person receiving the shocks was acting, but if you listen to the audio recordings, they were acting very well and they were instructed to provide more incorrect answers than correct ones.

As the number of incorrect answers rose so did the severity of the shock administered. Or at least the subjects thought they were increasing the voltage on a dial.

A stunning 65 per cent of subjects (ordinary people) obeyed. They progressed farther and farther up the electrical dial, all the way to the top, simply because a person in authority insisted on it.

As Milgram himself summarised: “Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ ears ringing with the screams of their victims, authority won more often than not.”

It was grim reading — and listening — and it made me think: who are the authority figures now and what have they prodded us to do?

Politicians have gone to great lengths to demand we submit to their authority. They still insist that we stay away from others, see them as diseased threats, and even second-class citizens.

The rules and laws created and constantly changed by those with emergency powers have shown that they cannot stop the virus. And thanks to vaccines, natural immunity and new drugs to combat Covid’s effects, we can learn to live with it.

David Burt, the Premier, has come under pressure to end all emergency powers in relation to Covid-19 (File photograph by Blaire Simmons)

Giving up these powers is not admitting defeat but admitting reality — we learn to live with Covid in the same way we have learnt to live with all other pathogens.

I remain encouraged. Milgram’s experiment also showed that 35 per cent of subjects did not comply. And when their defiance was witnessed, the willingness of other subjects to continue doing harm fell from 65 per cent to just 10 per cent.

Courage is contagious. Staying true to what you know to be right empowers others to do the same.

The Premier must end the emergency powers and allow life to continue.



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Published January 24, 2022 at 8:00 am (Updated January 24, 2022 at 1:17 pm)

Like the coronavirus, courage is contagious

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