Are Humans Hard-Wired to Torture?

With the reign of the Bush administration at an end, one issue that has plagued his legacy is the government-sanctioned acts of torture. The United States government was involved with several controversial actions ranging from the indefinite detention of so-called enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay, to the outright abuses and torture at Abu Ghraib. The almost universal response of the purveyors of torture was, “I was just following orders.” Most citizens have difficulty accepting this argument as legitimate, and demand that the torturer be held accountable for their actions as criminal accomplices. We are quick to demonize these individuals as horrible outliers of our society, an unsavory fringe who are clearly well out-of-bounds with the norms of human behavior. However, research into the psychology of torture and obedience tells quite a different story.

In 1963, a landmark study called “Behavioral Study of Obedience” was published in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. Lead investigator Dr. Stanley Milgram carried out an experiment where subjects were recruited to administer a learning test to a volunteer, while an experimenter observed. The experimenter and subject were kept in a separate room from the volunteer taking the test, and the rooms were connected with an intercom. In reality, the “volunteer” was actually a taped recording of an actor responding to the questions, so that each subject encountered the same situation at each stage. As the subject began administering the test, the experimenter instruct them to punish the volunteer for every wrong answer by using a shock generator. As the test progressed, the voltage steadily increased from 15 to 450 volts and the volunteer began to complain more and more that the shocks were hurting, until eventually they were screaming and pleading to make the shocks stop, and finally fell silent for the last series of shocks. If the subject refused to administer the shocks at any point in the test, the experimenter would remind them that the test required their full participation, and that they were not responsible for what happened to the volunteer.

Amazingly, roughly 60% of the subjects followed the experiment to the end, delivering shocks despite the screams of pain by the recipient. The study notes that most of the test subjects became very highly distressed by the experiment, with reactions such as profuse sweating, shaking, stuttering, and oddly enough, uncontrollable laughter.

The Milgram experiment was repeated numerous times around the world during the 1960s and early 1970s, and uniformly the compliance rate was around 60-65%. Variations of the study were attempted such as substituting the volunteer for a puppy, yet compliance remained the same. The factors that lowered compliance were moving the volunteer into the same room as the subject, or moving the experimenter out of the room. In these cases compliance dropped to 20-30%. Regardless of variation, because the experimental model was so distressing to the test subjects it was deemed unethical in the mid-1970s and further study was forced to stop.

For the first time in over 30 years, a scientist named Dr. Jerry Burger managed to obtain approval for a study partially reproducing the Milgram experiment, and in 2009 he published his findings in the journal American Psychologist. In Dr. Burger’s model, the subjects only administered the test up to the 150-volt mark, when the experimenter stopped them from going further. As a twist, Dr. Burger also had some subjects witness a planted tester who refused to administer the test. He hypothesized that seeing a prior refusal might embolden test subjects to also refuse. Nevertheless, Dr. Burger’s results were comparable to Dr. Milgram’s results, and having a witnessed refusal did not significantly change anything.

Whatever moral compass human beings claim to possess, this research suggests that when presented with a perceived authority figure, the majority will override that compass in favor of obedience. The only possible conclusion, then, is that most human beings are in fact hard-wired to torture.


Burger, J. (2009). Replicating Milgram: Would people still obey today? American Psychologist, 64 (1), 1-11 DOI: 10.1037/a0010932

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral Study of obedience. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67 (4), 371-378 DOI: 10.1037/h0040525

Milgram, Stanley. Obedience to Authority; An Experimental View. Harper-Collins, 1974. ISBN 0-06-131983-X.

Sajid Surve, DO

Sajid Surve, DO, is a physiatrist, acupuncturist, and osteopath who specializes in musculoskeletal medicine and integrative medicine.
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