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What would it take to make you do something truly awful? One day, psychology professor David Buss headed to a friend's house for a party. But when he arrived, his friend--a mild-mannered fellow professor--wasn't there to greet him. As David explains to producer Pat Walters, his friend was upstairs in a rage--threatening to kill his wife if he didn't get out of the house immediately. David tells us what happened next, and how it led him to ask 5,000 people all over the world a dark question, "have you ever thought about killing someone?," with an even darker answer.

That's what we're struggling with this hour--do violence and cruelty lurk inside us all? Benjamen Walker helps us explore this question by way of one of the most famous psychology experiments of all time. The year was 1961, the same year Adolf Eichman went on trial for Nazi war crimes. His defense boiled down to the assertion that he was just following orders. Enter Stanley Milgram. His now-notorious experiment at Yale found that 65% of participants were willing to administer the maximum electrical shock to a fellow citizen when prodded by a experimenter. But as Alex Haslam makes clear...the experiment isn't just about obedience. If you look closely, a more complicated--and more unsettling--picture emerges. One that forces us to ask ourselves, as Alex puts it: "what is greater, and what is good?"


David Buss, The Murderer Next Door: Why the Mind Is Designed to Kill


Dr. David Buss, Alex Haslam and Benjamen Walker

Produced by:

Pat Walters

Comments [18]


By the end of this segment it becomes clear how Western science has replaced God. That anyone would torture another for "the greater good" is always done in the name of some Idealism.

Jun. 17 2016 07:43 AM
Maureen from Jackson, NJ

While listening to the year end special (2015) a name got brought up that sparked (pun unintended) a memory...."Stanley Milgram".

There was an episode of Law & Order SVU that featured this character and it was played by the late Robin Williams.

One of my all time favorite episodes of Law & Order....probably due to the Robin Williams appearance. He portrayed the character superbly!

Maybe I missed it but surprised that this wasn't mentioned in the Radiolab episode.

Jan. 01 2016 07:26 AM
Erika from Staunton, IL

I agreen with Greg. If you talk to student of linguistics or NLP, the very fact of saying "you have no choice" reminds the subjects that a choice does exist and they can choose not to continue.

Oct. 25 2015 12:37 AM
Heidi from NYC

Why isn't this working for me? I can't listen on any of these pages or iTunes!

Aug. 14 2013 01:17 PM
Kriti from Massachusetts

I agree with this statement The Milgram Experiments show us that people follow orders. Because it's weird that the majority of the people went further on than what we had expected, when the products in which the authority was in charge. Just like when the tester says "you have no choice", i guess it alerts the individual's sense of their responsibility. But when they use the final product "you don't have a choice", thats when they alert that they would have to be stopped or to keep going. The tester did feel empathy towards the learner and felt that it was not right to so/keep on going. but again the role play of the authority was kind of pressuring on the tester and the tester kept on going. But why were they obeying and acting against their own better judgment? The tester has the will to say No or to get up and leave because No one was forcing the tester to push down the voltages. Yet, but he continued to obey his instructor. It's really frightening that we live with people who are just a little bit more obedient to society than thinking for themselves.&..their responsibility.

Jun. 08 2013 02:55 PM
MN Nazareth

Alice Miller did a great deal of work trying to figure out why people acted as they did in Nazi Germany, starting with Hitler and going all the way down the hierarchy. She blamed it on Black Pedagogy. And if she was right, then we will never get rid of the bad in ourselves until we treat the littlest among us better.

Jun. 15 2012 08:19 AM
Justin W. from Sacramento,CA

To say the milgram experiments were in anyway not a disgusting display of people will (or lack there of)  to give into authority is atrocious. The ad verecundiam argument, and on going logical fallacies given throughout the interview proves how intellectually bankrupt the guest was, and should signal red flags in every listeners mind to actually read about the experiment for themselves. Once you do you will understand how these people are not brave do to the astounding result that 65 % of the participants in Milgram’s study delivered the maximum shocks. Saying that the majority of people will do exactly what an authority figure tells them to with out question. 

Jun. 08 2012 01:46 PM
VM bklyn from Brooklyn

They are discussing the Milgram experiments now - it's fascinating but it seems to me that the rationale is different from what they are saying. In the conditions in which the "authority" is in charge, i.e., someone else, people will go further than what we expect. But when the tester says "you have no choice" it calls to the front the individual's sense of choice, which alerts them to their own responsibility.
This shifts the "responsible party" role in their mind from the scientist to themselves, and so at that point they decline.
It looks like Greg's comment is on this line as well.

Jun. 03 2012 04:26 PM
Tom fuller

Who was telling the story of the serial killer and who was the killer?

Jun. 03 2012 01:57 PM
Michael from Switzerland

For anyone interested in the Milgram experiment: Erich Fromm already did a critical analysis of this famous experiment in his book "the anatomy of human destructiveness" in 1973.
(BTW he discusses also the famous Prison-Experiment)

Apr. 11 2012 08:51 PM
Jack Kirk from Portland Oregon, KOAP

I have a question on the 'shocking' Milgrim experiments.

On the podcast it appears that Milgrim went through a progression of prods. Do you think that if, in the early going, Milgrim had used the final prod: "you don't have a choice", would they have stopped or kept going.

The examples that you played sounded like the 'shockers' were already at a point of deciding that they were not going on. I know this isn't an important part of the experiment, but it made it sound like they decided not to shock because they were told that they didn't have a choice. I think they were already set to decide against continuing.

What do you think?

Apr. 01 2012 10:17 PM
Ganondox from Brazil


What the hell are you saying about the autistic child, as someone who knows quite a deal about autism what you are saying simply doesn't make sense, and it's unclear what you are trying to say. Are you trying to say the LFA kids lack motivations for what they do? They do not, just because you can't understand their intentions doesn't mean they don't have them. Are you trying to link them to NPD? NPD and autism really have nothing in common, there is more that's different between the two than are similar, and a comparison using an autistic child doesn't make much sense. If you are suggesting that Autistic people lack empathy, that isn't true either, and neither do people with NPD. In fact regarding empathy autism is opposite to NPD, where autism has high affective empathy and low cognitive empathy while NPD has low affective empathy and low cognitive empathy. Really your comment comes off as somewhat offensive to people on the Autism Spectrum or those who are family of those on the spectrum.

Feb. 24 2012 09:19 PM

@hunterJE They figured that exact variable might have skewed the results, so they redid the experiement in an office on a street where the subjects would have no idea this was related to a university study. The results were the same.

Feb. 02 2012 12:22 PM
HunterJE from Washington State

I've always suspected that the Milgrim experiments showed something different from what they purport to show. The context of a clinical psychology trial is very different from the context of a prison camp; to conclude that people will kill a stranger ignores the alternate hypothesis that people tend to believe a researcher in a university-funded clinical psychology experiment probably won't ask you to do anything that would really cause lasting harm, regardless of the dramatics coming from the other room.

Jan. 17 2012 09:00 PM
Doug from Philly

RE: Alice and NPD.

Alice, Narcissicts generally DO have empathy. What you are thinking of is Sociopathy, and Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD).

They are very very different, and in NPD, it's often the case that they REALLY want people to feel for them and to treat them like any other, but the APD person could NOT care in the least if his friend, his mom, or the cop on the beat likes him.

There is no empathy in the APD, and the reason why, I and many other neuroscientists believe, this occurs and why therapy with them is doomed to failure (and failure in a way that looks like success, they just learn the right things to say and do) is that there is physically no neuronal firing in the frontal cortex areas of the brain normally associated with "empathy" or the feelings for others. It's just, well, not there.

Not true in the case of NPD.

Jan. 14 2012 04:21 PM

I had a different interpretation of why the patients wouldn't go on in the Milgrim experiment. They fleshed it out as an unwillingness to obey an order. But I didn't really hear an order. The scientist didn't say, "You must do this." The scientist said, "you don't have a choice."

And I think a completely valid interpretation is that simply reminding the subjects that they are 'agents' capable of making 'choices' prompted them to use that agency to not continue following commands.

Jan. 14 2012 01:01 PM
Demis from Goleta, CA, USA

I really liked Ben Walker in this show - Now I'm gonna go look up his podcast, "Too Much Information", since you mentioned it, Jad! Thanks for suggesting all these other cool podcasts!

Jan. 13 2012 03:01 AM
Alice from colorado

I am surprised that no one brought up Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) in this Episode; especially when you are looking for the "why".

Example: Have you ever seen an autistic kid sitting on the floor banging his head on the carpet and wailing? "Why"? Not volition... petulance...cruelty... This kid doesn't have an "A" game and a "B" game and a "C" game, and for spite brings the "C" game out that day. This has a genetic component. Something that the average human develops, simply didn't develop for this kid.

NPD is remarkably similar...these people simply do not develop empathy as well as a host of other things; their genetics don't produce them. "Now we are six" is a phrase that has been used...the inability to have adult impulse control or to reason through actions and consequences as an average adult would, i.e. human cruelty.

"Their genetics are broken" is probably the only why we will ever have; and the best questions that follow are HOW do the genetics break down to produce these situations and what are the "tells"?

I would love for you guys to do a show on that!


Jan. 10 2012 12:23 PM

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