Is Cruelty Inevitable?

Summary: Challenging two examples, a novel and a psychological experiment, normally unquestioned in their conclusion that humans tend naturally to be cruel.

During the last month or two I was active on Facebook, I posted about my dislike of William Golding’s 1951 novel, Lord of the Flies, the book I read in school as well as the 1963 film. I compared it with a real-life story where a group of 6 boys, aged 13-16, were marooned for more than a year on an islet south of Tonga.

Here’s what I originally wrote on social media:

I remember reading William Golding’s 1951 novel, _Lord of the Flies_ in school and watching the 1963 film. I remember being horrified by the depths of cruelty and savagery to which the boys in the story descend.

I don’t remember anyone seriously questioning whether the darkness described in the book would be realized in real life. After all, there is no shortage of bad news, bad behavior, cruelty, and violence in the world.

Believe it or not, there is a real-life example. In 1965, six boarding schoolboys, ages 13 to 16, were marooned on a desert island for fifteen months. They had long been given up for dead and their families held funerals.

Did they descend into the violence and cruelty described in Golding’s novel? No. They took care of each other (including one who broke his leg), tended a garden, made a makeshift gym and badminton court, constructed a musical instrument, and kept a permanent fire burning for more than a year (in stark contrast to the fights over fire-tending in Golding’s novel).

Peter Warner, the Australian captain who first discovered the boys wrote in his memoirs:

“Life has taught me a great deal, including the lesson that you should always look for what is good and positive in people.”

My Facebook Post from May, 2020
Mr Peter Warner, third from left, with his crew in 1968, including the survivors from ‘Ata.
Mr. Peter Warner, third from left, with his crew in 1968, including the survivors from ‘Ata. 
Photograph: Fairfax Media Archives/via Getty Images

I was reminded of this story when I listened to a recent episode of the “Criminal” podcast. Episode #178, “The Experiment Requires That You Continue” recounts the famous — and infamous — Milgram Psychology Experiment. Every psychology student learns about it, and it is well known well beyond academia.

In it, subjects (called “teachers”) were directed to deliver shocks of gradually increasing levels of power to someone in another room (called “learners”) every time the learner made a mistake on a simple memory test.

The Milgram Experiment Showed That Anyone Could Be A Monster

Testers could not observe the learners, but they could hear the shouts and screams of pain and begging for mercy (which were performed by trained participants; in fact, no one was being shocked or injured).

If the tester hesitated or refused to administer a shock, the experimenter was supposed to give these verbal prods in order:

  1. Please continue or Please go on.
  2. The experiment requires that you continue.
  3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  4. You have no other choice; you must go on.

If the tester refused to continue after Prod 1, then Prod 2 was supposed to be given. If the tester refused after all four prods had been spoken, the test was halted.

The finding trumpeted by the experiment was that 65% of the “teachers” administered shocks all the way up to the fatal top 450-volt shock and everyone administered shocks of at least 300 volts.

The conclusion was that people are, in general, very susceptible to directions given by authority figures. Milgram drew parallels between his findings and the comments of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann who claimed innocence and that he was only following orders.

There is a need to draw a line between the leaders responsible and the people like me forced to serve as mere instruments in the hands of the leaders … I was not a responsible leader, and as such do not feel myself guilty.

Adolf Eichman in a letter to Israeli President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi in 1962

Like Lord of the Flies, the Milgram experiment’s disturbing conclusions are presented as awful truths about the dark weaknesses in human morality.

Gina Perry

However, Gina Perry, in her book Behind the Shock Machine (The New Press, 2013), went back to scrutinize the experiment. She found inconsistencies in how the tests were administered, and much more variability in the results.

Behind the Shock Machine

The 65% claim was from one test of only 40 subjects; other tests had far lower percentages. She also found examples in which the administrators did not follow the strict guidelines (e.g. issuing more “prods” than the four outlined above). And when the test was administered outside the hallowed halls of Yale University at a smaller college, testers were far less willing to administer shocks.

I plan to purchase and read Perry’s book. I recommend you listen to the Criminal podcast to hear Perry talk about her work and some of the interesting facts she uncovered researching her book.

This Is Criminal Episode #178

Golding’s novel and the Milgram Experiment both speak to the darkness within the human psyche and the cruelty into which people may naturally descend. No doubt such darkness exists in us all.

Yet the story of the Tongan castaways and Perry’s book, though less sensational, provide instructive alternatives to the assumption that cruelty and selfishness are our natural and inevitable states of being.


The story from the Guardian: The real Lord of the Flies: what happened when six boys were shipwrecked for 15 months

Perry’s Book: Behind The Shock Machine

Criminal Podcast Episode #178: The experiment requires that you continue

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