All Evil Begins With 15 Volts by Dr. Shira Gabriel

Social Psychologist Phil Zimbardo famously said, “All evil begins with 15 volts” in reference to the infamous Milgram electric shock experiments.

When I teach students about the Milgram studies, in which participants were asked to give electric shocks to another participant, I ask my students to guess whether they would have given the other participant a shock of 300 volts – a point at which the other participant had already been screaming in pain and begging to stop.  Every single student in my class says they would not have given the shock, and yet every single participant in Milgram’s study did.

Why did they give that inhumane level of shock?  Because evil begins with 15 volts.  The first shock was just 15 volts – a minor shock.  And then each shock increased by only 15 more volts.  Each shock was a little worse, and so participants got used to the increase slowly – what was inhumane became normal.  Only the most sadistic among us would start with 300 volts, but all of us have the ability to get used to evil; to get used to cruelty; to get used to inhumanity.  And that is what is happening to us right now.

Every time a swastika is painted on a wall.  Every time a bomb threat is called in.  Every time gravestones get overturned; another 15 volts gets ticked off. Every time an Indian man gets murdered for the color of his skin.  Every time a gay man gets beat up.  Every time a trans child is denied the dignity of a simple bathroom.  Every time an unarmed black man gets shot.  Every time a woman is assaulted.  Each of these is a tick of 15 volts. Each inhumane act is our society moving towards more and more inhumanity and cruelty and, yes, more evil. It is where we will end – what our 450 volts will be – that keeps me up at night.

But Social Psychology also has an answer on how to reduce evil: a lone dissenter. When everyone is staying quiet and moving on with their lives and getting used to the ticks of conformity and inhumanity, one lone dissenter, one lone person willing to speak up and say “No.  Enough.  Not on my watch”, one lone dissenter can reduce the conformity of others by 80%.  80%.  One person speaking up can change the norms.  One person being willing to stand up against evil up can give other good people, with just a little less courage, the boost they need to add their voices.  One lone dissenter can bring that voltage down. 

So when you see evil ticking up by 15 small volts, be a dissenter.  Add your voice.  Don’t allow inhumanity to creep up and destroy us.  Know that being brave isn’t just for you and those you speak up for.  Being brave will make other people brave.  Being brave will protect the very values that America should stand for: equality, freedom from fear, and opportunity for all.

Shira Gabriel is an Associate Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Buffalo.