What difference can be made by one person, one voice?
On the issues you are most passionate about, can your one voice really make a difference?
We’ve all wondered about this at one time or another.
I think you’d be surprised by what the scientific research has to say about it. I was.
Let’s go back to Yale University, 1961, to one of the most famous psychology experiments ever done, the Milgram experiment.
Here’s how the experiment went: Each participant (a volunteer who agreed to participate in the study) was told they’d be the “teacher,” teaching another participant, “the learner”, a set of word pairs. When the learner got an answer wrong, an experiment administrator–an official looking authority figure in a gray coat–told the teacher to give the learner a painful electric shock.
Thankfully, the learners weren’t really being shocked — they were actors, but the teachers didn’t know that. As far as the teachers knew, they were delivering painful and potentially extremely harmful electric shocks to another human being. Milgram’s question was: Would they do it? And what factors would impact whether they would do it?
Though many of the teachers expressed concern as they administered shocks and heard screams of pain from the learners, a shocking 65% of “teachers” continued giving the shocks.
The study showed that when firmly instructed by an authority figure, most people shift into “obedience” mode and listen to the instructions – even if they need to betray their conscience.
Unfortunately, the study has been replicated dozens of times yielding similar results.
I’ve known about this study for over a decade, but last week I learned about some variations of the study that inspired me.
I wanted to share them with you, because they have everything to do with you.
In one version of the study, an actor played another “teacher,” and sat right next to the subject so the subject could, essentially, look over his shoulder and see what another teacher was doing.
In the experiment, the “planted” teacher administered all the shocks without protest or reservation. 100% of the volunteer subjects followed suit, also delivering the shocks.
We’ve all been in these situations — uncomfortable with what we are being asked to do. We look around to see — do other people think this is reasonable? If everyone else is crossing the street against the light, or pretending it’s normal to do something that harms the earth, or ignoring the homeless person on the street, we tend to do the same, even if we feel concerned or have reservations about it.
But listen to this. In the opposite variation of the study, two actors played teachers, again sitting right next to the subject. The two “planted” teachers rebelled — they refused to keep giving the shocks. Watching their rebellion, only 10% of the subjects complied.
It’s pretty stunning. The number of people doing harm to other human beings changed tenfold depending on whether there was a peer nearby speaking up against that harm, or a peer going along with it.
At one time or another, all of us ponder the question, “Can one voice make a difference?”
When it comes to standing up for a dissenting point of view, when it comes to saying no to violence or cruelty, the answer is clearly: yes.
In many ways, life is the Milgram experiment. We are often being told – subtly if not explicitly – to do the things that do harm – to do things that harm the earth, to turn a blind eye to the suffering in our communities, to accept as “just the way it is” things that in fact do and perpetuate harm. Can we be the ones to say no?
What tables do you sit at — in your work, in your community, in your family, where you could be the one to speak up?