How would Barack Obama or Mitt Romney perform on a test where an authority figure asked them to shock or hurt others to complete a test? The odds are, both would shock another person beyond the point of physical harm if told to do so. As many as 79% of people would follow such instructions.
In the 1960s, in the wake of the trial of Nazi death camp commandant Adolf Eichmann, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram devised an experiment to test obedience to authority. Milgram asked the question: would normal people of good will hurt others if they were instructed by an authority figure? He anticipated that his test subjects, primarily Yale students, would be more resistant to authority than less-educated Nazi death camp workers, who had already told investigators they were merely "doing as they were ordered."
Milgram was shocked to learn that Yale students were even more obedient to authority than working class people with a high school education.
Eli Roth, creator of the Hostel films, hosted an episode of Discovery Channel's Curiosity series which rebooted Milgram's experiment. In addition to undergoing tests to see if he had "psychopath" tendencies (he came out as a "part-time psychopath"), Roth featured a friendlier and safer test that didn't force participants to shock victims up to and beyond the point of death.
Roth's updated test drew upon the work of Santa Clara University researcher Jerry Burger, who replicated the Milgram test in 2009 and found similar results to Milgram's.
The Discovery channel experiment differed from the original one in two ways. First, participants were stopped from progressing beyond a 150 volt shock, which represented serious harm. Milgram's experiment traumatized subjects needlessly, by allowing them to run the entire "shock machine" board, up to and beyond the point of fatal shocks. The updated experiment also introduced a "guardian angel" representing the influence of good. It turned out that when an actor pretending to be a part of the experiment spoke up against the shocks, participants quickly refused to continue.
"All it takes is one person," Roth said.
As films of the original and updated Milgram experiments show, those who follow these instructions can feel terrible about harming others. Yet they go along anyway.
Because such a large percentage of people do respond to the instructions of authority, this is probably the reason why elections are so hotly contested. If one group fears its trusted authority figure may be replaced by one they do not trust (based on instructions from their authority figure) fear is a powerful motivator. The new version of the experiment also shows that a "voice for good" or encouragement to resist can also be heard and heeded.
In light of what we now understand through bioscience and psychological research, it's more interesting than ever that, based in common sense, the Founding Fathers chose to change leadership through an electoral process every four years. It's a time limit on the influence of an authority figure, built into the system itself.