The Shock of Human Nature

Our weekly explainer on economics using lessons from popular culture. In Installment 58, Ghoul validates the Milgram Experiment.

Although Radhika Apte is the character for whom we feel the most sympathy in Ghoul, a superb new horror series on Netflix, she begins the show with an act of betrayal. Working for the government in a fascist dictatorship, she turns her father in to the authorities because she finds his dissent to be ‘anti-national’. Watching this play out, we could be forgiven for thinking that this is merely fiction, and no daughter could do this to her dad. In later scenes, when we see the sadism of prison guards and interrogators, we could be forgiven for thinking that is a particular cruel lot.

And yet, in every totalitarian regime that has existed, under leaders like Hitler and Stalin and Mao, ordinary people have turned on their families and committed unspeakable crimes. Are they bad people, or are they reacting in human ways to difficult times? Would we all be monsters if circumstances drove us in that direction?

In the early 1960s, a Yale psychologist named Stanley Milgram set out to answer that question. He designed a series of experiments, collectively known as the Milgram Experiment, which Wikipedia sums up thus:

They measured the willingness of study participants, men from a diverse range of occupations with varying levels of education, to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts conflicting with their personal conscience. Participants were led to believe that they were assisting an unrelated experiment, in which they had to administer electric shocks to a “learner.” These fake electric shocks gradually increased to levels that would have been fatal had they been real.

In a nutshell, the subjects, once under the sway of an authority figure, would perform enormous acts of cruelty that they would not even contemplate on their own. In Milgram’s words (taken from here):

With numbing regularity good people were seen to knuckle under the demands of authority and perform actions that were callous and severe. Men who are in everyday life responsible and decent were seduced by the trappings of authority, by the control of their perceptions, and by the uncritical acceptance of the experimenter’s definition of the situation, into performing harsh acts.

Radhika Apte’s character, thus, was not a particularly spineless and cruel woman, but par for the course, and those elements of Ghoul are not far-fetched but quite realistic. (That blend of the real and the fantastic gives the series much of its allegorical power.) Groupthink also explains why the characters behaved in that manner — and you’ll see it all around you, in various contexts. But the first thing that came to mind when I saw Ghoul was the Milgram Experiment, which should serve to remind us that human nature can often lead us to behaviour that we mistakenly call inhuman.


For more, you can read Milgram’s original paper on this, or his book, Obedience to Authority