I I first read the story of the Yale University torture study shortly after my New Age conversion, around the time that I first learned about the law of attraction. And though I’ve heard it several times since, I just can’t resist a retelling here. It’s just so darn . . . poignant. You know?
Beginning in the year 1961, Yale University conducted a set of frightening psychological experiments on a mix of average people. In each iteration of this study, three roles were played: the subject, the button pusher, and the director. The idea was simple: the button pusher would attempt to teach the subject, who was sitting in a different room, a set of word pairs. Then the button pusher would test the subject’s learning ability. When the subject responded incorrectly, the director (wearing a white lab coat) would tell the button pusher (the actual subject of the experiment) to deliver electric shocks of increasing intensity to the subject by—you guessed it—pressing a button.
Of course, the setup was a bit of a sham. No actual electrical current was delivered, but the subject made a convincing show of suffering, anyway.
The results of the study and subsequent studies shocked the researchers and the public alike: 65 percent of the button pushers complied with the researcher’s demands and pushed the torture button until the highest level of pain (an excruciating 450 volts) was delivered repeatedly—despite the fierce cries and protests of the subjects.
When the results of this study were announced to the public, they apparently caused quite a media frenzy. Respected analysts and psychologists made pessimistic observations about the evil inherent in human nature and in society. What the journalists apparently did not reveal, however, was this: the button pushers were in absolute anguish a great deal of the time.
They paced. They protested. They cried—even grown men cried. They begged not to be required to go on.
They didn’t want to do it at all.
People aren’t bad. We’re just . . . well, team players. We’re built to thrive best in healthy hierarchies. The real problem comes when the hierarchies malfunction–which of course they often do. Then, it’s time for some independent thought. It’s time to remember that we have power, even in seemingly hopeless situations.
It’s time to stop pushing the button.
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