Acceptance of responsibility is a common phrase used in the justice system. When a defendant decides they are done fighting their case and is ready to accept responsibility for their actions, the court see’s this as a means to an end. Typically then, the defendant will move into the sentencing portion of their case and closure will be brought in as the judge decides the punishment to hand down. But accepting responsibility is a difficult task for an individual to do. It tends to be human nature to point fingers at others first before we are willing to point the finger at our self. In 1961, a Yale psychologist named Milgram designed an experiment to understand this and the results were very interesting.
The design of the experiment was relatively simple. The volunteers would be split into one of two groups: A student or a teacher. However unknown to the volunteers, the picking of the group was staged so that the volunteer would always end up as a teacher, and the student was actually one of the scientist just playing the role. Each one of the volunteers, who was the teacher, was asked to sit at a console and ask the student a series of questions. If the student got the question wrong, they would be punished by receiving an electric shock that would be administered by the volunteer. There were thirty switches on the console for the electric shocks, starting at 15 volts running up to a deadly 450 volts. The switches were clearly labeled with their voltage and even had warning labels affixed to them indicating the severity of the shock i.e. “Slight Shock,” “Moderate Shock,” “Danger: Severe Shock.” This way there was no confusion as to what the switches meant.
Four variations of the experiment were setup with 40 volunteers for each. The 4 variations were broken down as follows:
1) The student, who was actually a scientist, sat right next to the teacher and the teacher had to physically place the student’s hand onto the shock plate.
2) The student and the teacher were in the same room and the teacher could physically hear and see the student’s reaction after the shock was administered.
3) The student and the teacher were placed in separate rooms. And while the teacher could not see the student, they could hear the students protest and screams through the walls.
4) In this last setup, the student and the teacher were kept completely separated and the teacher could not hear or see the reactions from the student.
Before the experiment started the scientist predicted that only 2 to 3 percent of the people would go all the way with administering a lethal dose of voltage shock, and that those that did would fall into the category of being a psychopath. But they were wrong.
In variation number one where the teacher had to physically place the student’s hand onto the shock plate, 70 percent of the volunteer’s quit without going very far. The numbers stayed pretty similar with variation number two was setup and the volunteer and the student were in the same room – 60 percent of the teachers refused to continue. However in variations number three and four, nearly 65 percent of the volunteers went through with the experiment all the way up to the final stage – administering the final switch thus killing the student.
The conclusion of the experiment revealed something horrifying: Not a single volunteer expressed any concern for the student’s wellbeing. In fact, they were more concerned with their own skin. Once the setup was revealed to the volunteers and they were shown that nobody was actually shocked or hurt, only a few expressed remorse. Most, even the one’s that went all the way through to the end, justified their actions by blaming the scientist. They believed they would not be held responsible for pushing the switch and that if any repercussions would to be had, they could cast the responsibility on those that were in charge.
Milgram’s experiment gave us an interesting view on human behavior, that the more abstract a person becomes the more capable we become in doing them harm. The court system, rightfully so, believes if you are the one to push the switch administering the lethal blow, you are going to be held accountable for your actions. And that is an important fact to remember. We as human beings are fortunate to have a moral compass that tells us right from wrong. This compass guides us when making decisions and when faced with a contemplating choice we must recognize what effects our actions will have on the other party. And if you make the wrong decision then as the courts have so eloquently put it, you must accept responsibility. And this is an important factor you should always keep in mind regardless of who is tell you what to do, you are still the ultimate decision maker.