Pain for Gain

New research shows that people are willing to harm one another for a paltry amount of cash—sometimes as little as $30

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Image by Flickr user: otisarchives4 / Creative Commons

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Most people will obey authority no matter the moral consequence, psychologist Stanley Milgram discovered in a set of now-famous experiments conducted in the 1960s. When test subjects were instructed to electrocute another person, for instance, they dutifully flipped the voltage switch all the way to “danger–severe shock.”

With the world still writhing from the revelations of the Holocaust, Milgram’s study spoke to the question: How were decent German citizens compelled to commit moral atrocities beyond the scope of comprehension?

Half a century later, Cambridge University PhD candidate Oriel FeldmanHall asks the modern, commercial version of Milgram’s question: How much cash will entice folks to compromise their integrity? It all boils down to costs and benefits, writes Laura Sanders in Science News (May 7, 2011): “Either administer a painful electric shock to a person in another room and make one British pound (about a dollar and a half), or spare the other person the shock and forgo the money.” MRI scanners evaluated subjects’ brain activity during the tests.

When one test group was asked, the majority of the subjects—64 percent—said they would never electrocute another person, regardless of the level of electrical charge or amount of money. When actual money was introduced to another group, though, results changed dramatically. “Morality studies in the lab almost always rely on asking participants to imagine how they would behave,” says Sanders. In the end, only 4 percent refrained from issuing a shock. “These kinds of studies can help scientists figure out how the brain dictates moral behavior,” writes Sanders.

What’s even more shocking is the paltry amount of money that convinced subjects to cave. The most they could earn was 20 pounds, equivalent to about $30.

cover-167-thumbHave something to say? Send a letter to editor@utne.com. This article first appeared in the September-October 2011 issue of Utne Reader.