At the weekend I went to see The Belko Experiment from the writer of Guardians of the Galaxy, James Gunn. The premise of the film (rated 18 in the UK) is that a group of people are sealed in an office block and told they have two hours to kill 30 co-workers otherwise 60 of them will be murdered at random.
It’s a similar premise to Battle Royale directed by Kinji Fukasaku, in which a group of high-school students are placed on an island and told to kill each other until one survives (basically remade as The Hunger Games). Both are played as jet-black comedies with an emphasis on hard-to-watch violence, although Battle Royale depicts it as tragic while The Belko Experiment takes glee in showcasing the sadism.
You could draw further comparison with The Purge trilogy, set in a future where all crimes are legalised for 12 hours. In The Purge the morality is reversed from the other two however, because rather than an authority figure using threats to force characters to commit violence, The Purge is about what would happen if all authority figures and threats are removed.
They all share the same ethical question however. Not “are some people capable of violence?” rather, “is everyone capable of violence?” If you took a bunch of people at random and put them in an environment where savage violence is one of the choices, how many would actually choose it?
All three film franchises believe the same thing would happen. A small group of people jump straight to violence while most stay out of it. Do they get it right? What would really happen if we carried out a Belko Experiment? You’ll be pleased to know such a thing has never been attempted, but there have been fascinating studies which point to the willingness of people to commit violence.
Because I Told you To
In 1961 Stanley Milgram at Yale University carried out an experiment designed to measure a person’s willingness to commit violent acts. The subject was told to adopt the role of a teacher who was educating a student on the other side of a wall. The teacher asked a series of questions and punished the student with electric shocks for every mistake. Unknown to them, the “student” was an actor pretending to scream in agony and begging for the teacher to stop.
The student would complain about a heart condition, pretend to pass out from the pain, bang on the wall etc. and if the teacher refused to continue torturing the actor they were told “please continue” or “you have no choice, you must continue”. Only if they objected four times, were they finally allowed to stop.
The aim was to see how many people would be prepared to go on harming another human simply because someone told them to. The experiment has been repeated and carried out a number of different ways over the decades and the results are roughly the same.
Between 61 – 65% of people were prepared to keep going and shock the person to the point of potentially killing them. It’s worth noting that every participant did show discomfort but most carried on regardless.
Charles Hofling performed a similar experiment in 1966 when 22 nurses were instructed to administer a lethal dose of medicine to a patient. 21 of them were prepared to do it simply because a doctor insisted. Don’t misunderstand me here, I think nurses are amazing people...but that is exactly the point. Even kind, compassionate, ethically wonderful people can still commit acts of violence when ordered to. It seems if an authority figure asks you to do something immoral, there's a good chance you'll salute and say "Aye-aye!"
The Stanford Prison Experiment
An even more controversial experiment was carried out in 1971 by Philip Zimbardo at Stanford Univeristy. Zimbardo selected 24 students, all male with no criminal record or history of mental illness, and randomly assigned them to one of two groups: prisoners and guards. He converted one of the basements at Stanford into a makeshift prison and threw the two groups in to see what would happen.
The experiment is controversial because it doesn’t follow a lot of the standard methodologies required by Science. There was no independent variable, no dependent variable, Zimbardo himself got involved and there was no quantitative data, nor a hypothesis tested. This is really an anecdotal example of “what would happen?” which many would argue is unscientific. Nevertheless, the results were sobering.
Within a few days, the “guard” students began brutalising the prisoners and subjecting them to psychological tortures. The prisoners were made to strip naked, sleep on concrete, exercise to the point of exhaustion, got locked in a cupboard, suffered sleep deprivation and endured constant verbal abuse.
Zimbardo argued that, contrary to popular opinion, aggressive power-abusers were not a “certain type of person”, rather, anyone given the chance to exert power can become violent and aggressive.
What’s even more interesting is that 50 people came to observe the simulation taking place and raised absolutely no objection to Zimbardo. In the same way Milgram’s experiment showed that people are prepared to be violent, Zimbardo’s showed that people are willing to stand by and do nothing.
The experiment was eventually stopped when Zimbardo’s girlfriend got so worried about his involvement that she insisted he finish it. Acknowledging that he was becoming emotionally invested, Zimbardo did indeed halt the simulation, much to the annoyance and frustration of the “guard” students.
A similar experiment was carried out by Jane Elliot in 1968. A primary school teacher, Elliot decided to split the class into two groups based on their eye-colour and told the brown-eyed children they were intellectually and socially inferior. She began giving privileges to the blue-eyed students and the results were astonishing.
The blue-eyed students became arrogant and bullying, while the brown-eyed students began performing worse on tests and devaluing themselves. Elliot intended the exercise to teach the children about the utter ludicrous nature of racism but found, unexpectedly, that by splitting a group of people into privileged and not, they began fulfilling the roles automatically.
We have to ask ourselves what we would do in these situations? We’d all like to assume we’d be the one nurse who objected to the lethal dosage, the 35% of people who refused to electrocute, or the girlfriend who insisted the violence end. But statistically, chances are most of us would go along with it. I’d like to think I’m a decent guy…but I wonder.
So are humans basically evil?
These studies suggest what films get wrong is that only a small minority of people will turn to violence. Actually, most of us are prepared to be violent if the situation calls for it. But don’t rule our species out just yet, because there are also studies which showcase our capacity for altruism.
In 1973 a study by Darley and Batson, the so-called “Good Samaritan Study” found that 63% of people would stop to help someone passed-out on the street, provided they were not in a great hurry.
Then there was the 2004 study by Molly Crockett at UCL who reversed the Milgram experiment to see if people would be willing to electrocute another person or themselves for money. Crocket found that people were twice as willing to endure pain themselves than inflict it on others. This doesn’t necessarily contradict the Milgram study but it does suggest that context might be everything. If we’re being instructed to do something awful we might be persuaded, but if we’re given a choice we’d rather not hurt anyone. Submission to authority might be a part of us, but so is empathy.
The Greatest Experiment Of All Time
The films I mentioned at the beginning all go in different directions at their finale, making different comments about the nature of humanity. In some we are told that even peaceful people can become killers while in some we are told nobody can be pushed to violence against their will.
It seems most film-makers, and possibly audiences, make the same assumption: a small minority of people engage in violence immediately but the majority of us are a complex mixture of aggression and pacifism. Where we each differ is how far we have to be pushed to let the violence take over. This sounds like a pretty grown-up response to the knotty question of human nature, so bravo Hollywood!
For my money the best summation of the human condition is found in the movie Full Metal Jacket by Stanley Kubrick. The protagonist wears a helmet displaying the symbols for peace and the words “Born to kill” written beneath. When questioned, he explains he’s trying to make a comment about the duality of man. Ultimately, this soldier might have the most honest outlook of them all. Good ol’ Kubrick.
We did evolve to survive and breed at all costs but we also learned that living in communities gives us an advantage. We evolved a capacity for aggression which helped us hunt but also a capacity for cooperation which helped us build.
Really, The Belko Experiment has been running for the last hundred thousand years all across the globe. A group of intelligent, self-aware creatures are stuck together in a sealed environment called Planet Earth and we’ve pretty much been left to our own devices.
You might believe we’re in a Purge Universe where there is no authority for our actions (atheism), you might believe we’re in a Battle Royale Universe where there is a powerful being watching and giving us instructions (theism) or you might believe we’re in a Belko Experiment universe where the powerful being sets things up and then steps back (deism). The point is we really are playing out this social experiment and the results don’t suggest humans are solely evil.
So far in the experiment we have gone to war a lot, invoked slavery and torture but we’ve also invented peace-talks, charity, Science, art and medicine. How the experiment is going to conclude is anyone’s guess, but regardless of your ethical or theological stance, we are all faced with the same question: if there are Gods/aliens/future Scientists analysing and judging our civilization’s behaviour, what would you like them to conclude about us? What would you like them to conclude about you?
I love science, let me tell you why.