Are Humans Hard-Wired to Torture?

With the reign of the Bush administration at an end, one issue that has plagued his legacy is the government-sanctioned acts of torture. The United States government was involved with several controversial actions ranging from the indefinite detention of so-called enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay, to the outright abuses and torture at Abu Ghraib. The almost universal response of the purveyors of torture was, “I was just following orders.” Most citizens have difficulty accepting this argument as legitimate, and demand that the torturer be held accountable for their actions as criminal accomplices. We are quick to demonize these individuals as horrible outliers of our society, an unsavory fringe who are clearly well out-of-bounds with the norms of human behavior. However, research into the psychology of torture and obedience tells quite a different story.

In 1963, a landmark study called “Behavioral Study of Obedience” was published in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. Lead investigator Dr. Stanley Milgram carried out an experiment where subjects were recruited to administer a learning test to a volunteer, while an experimenter observed. The experimenter and subject were kept in a separate room from the volunteer taking the test, and the rooms were connected with an intercom. In reality, the “volunteer” was actually a taped recording of an actor responding to the questions, so that each subject encountered the same situation at each stage. As the subject began administering the test, the experimenter instruct them to punish the volunteer for every wrong answer by using a shock generator. As the test progressed, the voltage steadily increased from 15 to 450 volts and the volunteer began to complain more and more that the shocks were hurting, until eventually they were screaming and pleading to make the shocks stop, and finally fell silent for the last series of shocks. If the subject refused to administer the shocks at any point in the test, the experimenter would remind them that the test required their full participation, and that they were not responsible for what happened to the volunteer.

Amazingly, roughly 60% of the subjects followed the experiment to the end, delivering shocks despite the screams of pain by the recipient. The study notes that most of the test subjects became very highly distressed by the experiment, with reactions such as profuse sweating, shaking, stuttering, and oddly enough, uncontrollable laughter.

The Milgram experiment was repeated numerous times around the world during the 1960s and early 1970s, and uniformly the compliance rate was around 60-65%. Variations of the study were attempted such as substituting the volunteer for a puppy, yet compliance remained the same. The factors that lowered compliance were moving the volunteer into the same room as the subject, or moving the experimenter out of the room. In these cases compliance dropped to 20-30%. Regardless of variation, because the experimental model was so distressing to the test subjects it was deemed unethical in the mid-1970s and further study was forced to stop.

For the first time in over 30 years, a scientist named Dr. Jerry Burger managed to obtain approval for a study partially reproducing the Milgram experiment, and in 2009 he published his findings in the journal American Psychologist. In Dr. Burger’s model, the subjects only administered the test up to the 150-volt mark, when the experimenter stopped them from going further. As a twist, Dr. Burger also had some subjects witness a planted tester who refused to administer the test. He hypothesized that seeing a prior refusal might embolden test subjects to also refuse. Nevertheless, Dr. Burger’s results were comparable to Dr. Milgram’s results, and having a witnessed refusal did not significantly change anything.

Whatever moral compass human beings claim to possess, this research suggests that when presented with a perceived authority figure, the majority will override that compass in favor of obedience. The only possible conclusion, then, is that most human beings are in fact hard-wired to torture.


Burger, J. (2009). Replicating Milgram: Would people still obey today? American Psychologist, 64 (1), 1-11 DOI: 10.1037/a0010932

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral Study of obedience. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67 (4), 371-378 DOI: 10.1037/h0040525

Milgram, Stanley. Obedience to Authority; An Experimental View. Harper-Collins, 1974. ISBN 0-06-131983-X.

  • I’m sorry, but your last conclusion doesn’t follow. What seems to be hard-wired is a tendency to comply with social expectations, not sadism. This is exactly what would be expected from the members of a highly social primate species in dealing with newcomers whose status within their group is unestablished. Torturing a defenseless victim is one of a range of responses that are facilitated by this tendency, not its direct goal.

  • Seconded. If humans had a built-in tendency to torture, then being given the opportunity to do so without responsibility nor retaliation would have been enjoyable or neutral, not distressing. All the experiments show is that the predilection of humans to obey superiors generally overrides their empathy and concern for others.

    However, you could have cited the Stanford prison experiment, in which merely being awarded authority over others produced sadistic behavior in one-third of the “guards”. In this case sadism was definitely its own reward.

  • Katkinkate

    Hardwired for torture or just for obedience? If 60% of people will obey authority-figures to the point of torturing someone you only need a very few individuals in a position of authority ready to make the decision to torture to enable it to happen. The article said that most showed signs of great stress over what they were doing. I would suggest this would mean they would be very unlikely to initiate torture themselves. They were following the dictates of an authority despite the stress/upset they were feeling personally. I think it’s more likely that people are hardwired to follow an authority (rather than take responsibility for themselves) than hardwired for torture. If a tendency for torture was hardwired we would probably see a lot more of it in society.

  • Mike

    Fascinating experiment. I’m familiar with the Stanford experiment that Pteryxx cites, but these other experiments are new to me. And disturbing. A few points, though.

    First, I agree with the group here (and not just because of a tendency to conform!). The conclusion is really that humans are “hard-wired” to conform or fit in or [insert other description of obedience and social acceptance here], and the experiment indicates that this tendency can, under specific circumstances, exert primacy over what really seems to be a tendency against torture.

    Second, I think it’s particularly interesting that a larger majority of people (70-80%) refused to torture when they were in the same room as the victim or when the authority figure was not in the room. At least one of these circumstances was always true for the worst instances of Bush-Administration-Sanctioned torture (i.e. waterboarding). I don’t believe that this article was meant to provide an excuse for the torturers, but to the extent one reads it that way, this is a significant point.

    Finally, what this article really drives home is the importance of having the right people in positions of authority.

    Nice foray into the intersection of science and politics, Dr. Surve. Your articles are often fascinating, but this one has the added benefit of being very topical (and thought-provoking — see Comments section).

  • In a way you could say humans are hard wired for torture. Scientists can’t figure out why because they throw the reason out the door before they even begin looking.

    Human beings have energy. Scientists refuse to believe this. Just for this post, accept that human beings have energy. Accept that human beings can emit or absorb energy. Accept the fact that a human being with lots of energy will feel very good, while a human being with little energy will not feel good.

    Human beings are hard wired for torture, because torturing a human being forces the victim to release energy, which lowers their overall energy level and makes them feel bad. The released energy is absorbed or eaten by the torturer which increases their overall energy level, making them feel powerful and good.

    That is why the story says that people will torture, even if the people being tortured are screaming. The torturers don’t hear the people. The torturers are concentrating on feeding on the energy the torture victims are giving off, and nothing else matters to them.

    Most people have a hard time even imagining torture. So what could be going on with a human being that would make them torture another human being? Psychiatrists will go on about psychological reasons, but you can never be sure about that. You are trying to guess what is in a person’s mind.

    But if human beings feed on energy, there is no guessing. Any human being that hurts another human being, does so to force the victim to release energy which the attacker then absorbs and feeds on. There is an obvious goal and reward for torture. The goal of torture is not to hurt the person. The goal of torture of another human being is to force the victim to release energy, food, for the humann being doing the torturing to feed on and become strong

    The human race would advance by leaps and bounds if scientists would just admit that human beings have energy. The concept of human energy can answer…..25% of the mysteries about human beings, their actions, and their health conditions.

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  • Anonymous

    Hap, the concept of “human energy” is non-scientific(and rather dumb), which is why no one is taking it seriously.

  • I appreciate the numerous comments to this article! I wanted to clarify my conclusions and add some fuel for thought.

    1. I am aware of the Stanford prison experiment, but this article was meant to highlight the recent approval for a recreation of the Milgram experiment, and how despite a 30-year gap the compliance rates still remained the same.

    2. I understand where people are coming from with their dispute of my conclusion. Although I didn’t include these points in my article, I wanted to add them here. In Dr. Milgram’s book, he talks about his various recreations of this study, and he brings up some caveats which he found curious. Firstly, almost nobody inquired about the well-being of the victim that they were torturing, even after the study was concluded. Nobody independently chose to contact authorities or call an ambulance or even knock on the door to see if the victim was still alive (remember for the highest shocks the victim falls silent).

    3. Nobody put a gun to the head of the participants. Nobody forced them or threatened bodily harm if they did not comply with the experiment. If they truly had a moral objection to torture and refused to torture under any circumstances, then this scenario should have proven an easy refusal on their part. More often than not, however, these subjects chose to willfully suppress their feelings and comply. The situation was distressing, but they went along with it with minimal encouragement.

    When I conclude that humans are hard-wired for torture, I am implying that when put into certain scenarios, we have the capacity to inflict harm on another person without regard for their well-being. That is not to say that I condone torture or even give a free pass to those who committed torture.

  • Humans certainly can choose to inflict harm on others without a second thought, in lots of scenarios besides that of torture-from-authority: in warfare, mob violence, hate crimes, law enforcement, domestic abuse, and when in fear for their own lives, for instance. I just think that your title phrase doesn’t follow from the article.

    In your clarification, you claim the participants must not “truly” have had moral objections to torture, or else they wouldn’t have participated. How can you make any claims about their moral beliefs? I interpret their distress at the situation as evidence that the participants do have objections, probably moral objections, but that in most cases those objections are easily overridden by the mere presence of an authority figure. The lack of direct coercion does not mean that 70% of the experimenters lacked moral objection to torture, as you claim. It simply wasn’t strong enough to overcome whatever rationalizations they made to themselves to justify their actions. If the participants had been polled beforehand on their attitudes toward torture or punishment, and thus primed to consider their actions in that light, the experiment may have had different results.

    All we can conclude from the Milgram experiments is that our obedience often trumps our morality. That’s a terrifying enough lesson without claiming that we’re all natural-born torturers.

  • Correction to myself: 60% of participants continued administering shocks, as cited in the above article. 70% was the figure cited in my psychology class today.

  • Mike

    I think that we’re all actually much closer to being on the same page than we think. The bottom line is that our need to obey or conform (the impetus for which is worthy of its own body of work, which I’m certain is available) has the ability to trump our morality. Hell, history teaches us that.

    There are any number of factors inherent in the design and conduct of the experiment that could explain some of the nuances of the results and some of the particular behavior or reactions of the participants. But the bottom line (on which it would seem we all agree) is indeed the most important point here, and it scares the hell out of me.

    Oh, and I of course exclude Happeh from my comments. We can “never be sure” about psychology…but we can be certain about “eating” the “energy” from the guy in the next room. Got it.

  • Brooklyndo2

    There is a quite simple and very simplistic reason for what Dr. Saj is talking about. Humans are basically pack animals…. we are bred to conform with as little thought about it as possible. That is how we survived to achieve any civilization. Simple proof of our tendency to conform : look at any parking lot from the time it is empty, and note that cars will tend to cluster around each other. When I initially emailed Dr. Surve the article ( selfless plug, yes. Im shameless), I did not think it would be spun into a blog tying into current politics. But, it does make for better press. 🙂 We tend to conform to what we consider the norm and put that first not because of an ingrained (possibly genetic level) need to conform… just think of junior high and high school and stereotypical behaviour. We tend to follow the Johnson’s so to speak.
    I only wonder if any good studies were done on providing pleasure to others… If we could prove somehow that humans tend to have a lower rate of compliance to providing pleasure… now that would be interesting indeed…

  • Wabi

    Humans go against their evolved and sophisticated better judgement everyday. It’s not necessarily the cognitive apparatus that’s functionally deficient, but the conditions sufficient for that apparatus to work optimally – and those conditions are countless and varied. The fact that the apparatus fails to activate properly, is not a reflection on the moral or cognitive degeneracy of the owner.

    For e.g.: if someone twists my arm to the point of dislocation, my arm is no longer optimally functional and my usage will be compromised somewhat. If perchance, in the aftermath of my accident I were to witness a defenceless old lady being mugged, my ability to physically attempt to apprehend the offender may be diminished and the offender might not be brought to justice by my own hand. This is not to say I would be considered morally corrupt because my piss-weak effort would be judged to be disproportionate to the situation in hand, but rather the power of an unfortunate external condition would have affected my capacities. Ergo, my hypothetical self is not a sadistic old lady hater, but a product of a circumstantial blip. My hard-wiring, so to speak, is still intact.

  • It tells us something about fear of authorities, I have to agree with most reactions here.
    And as we come to that conclusion, it seems a logical step to prosecute the authorities as well, since they took advantage of that human trait …

  • Anonymous

    Parking lot example – Understandable, but more likely a phenomenon merely the result of rational thought- where do you think the first individual to show up parked? Probably not on the opposite side of the entrance. It seems that in the parking lot, there is an incentive to follow the collective majority, not so much in the torture chamber. Scary stuff, but I dig it.

  • Howard

    It(He,She) is lamentable these things, because a time ago behind wise that the medical services were a problem for many persons and up to the moment they neither find they do not even give any solution, apparently the government forgot what promised and it is now where it is that to there be remembered(reminded), before that is very late, the medical assurance is important for many people, like that they indicate it in findrxonline, the page that delivers a lot of information about this debate.

  • The motto of our local school is “Serve and Obey”. Although a private school, this ethos pretty much applies throughout the schooling system in the Western world and would suggest that we inculcate the population to behave in exactly the way that Milgram demonstrated.

    However, I wonder what would happen if you took a cohort of children who were raised to be autonomous, rational individuals, used to thinking for themselves and assessing the worth of theories, even when these theories issue from an apparently authoritative figure?

    Unusual they may be, but such children do exist in the form of autonomously home educated children. I know quite a few of these and regard their expressions of rational scepticism at some of the stuff that teachers of their occasional classes tell them as being extremely healthy.

    Such children are also not confused on the ethics of cruelty…for example: they are not told not to bully by people (teachers) who frequently repeatedly bully them.

    I would therefore say that it is almost impossible to conclude with any certainty that a trait either towards cruelty or deference to authority is hard-wired, since we educate our youngsters to behave in exactly this sort of a way all the time.

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  • What percentage of the test subjects were chronic drug users? Surely that would affect their “hard-wired” behavior.

    The drugs under experimental control should include caffeine, tobacco, and sugar, which are all known to influence human judgment.

    An experiment performed with aboriginal bushmen might lend some credence to the “hard-wired” conclusion.

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  • Gabrielle

    OK wow, so I guess the author of this article is buying into the same backwards thinking that is fueling economic collapse and social disintegration correct? The same thinking that was proposed during Sigmund Freud’s era– attempting to shove the phallus of toxic cigarettes into the mouths of young revolutionaries and suffragists.

    Oh yes, media is quite a power tool, you can utilize it for PURE bullshit and control the masses by proposing that “the nature of man is fundamentally irrational behavior” and fuel the sort of neonazi world control we are fucking going in the direction of thank u madam or sir I paid no attention to your gender and no it’s not about that.

    It’s about these stupid loaded studies that have no actual statistical or scientific basis. A study done on labrats in the 50’s won’t hold water in 2013 and the 21st century go peddle your torture propaganda the edge of this FLAT 2 DIMENSIONAL DIAGRAM of the WASTE LAND of HUMAN POTENTIAL. THANK YOU! to all who understand or are coming to see LIKE I AM, that schizophrenia was impregnated from the last century due to wackjobs who insist that violence is natural for the species and that evolution is a sickness or disease that should be mediated or medicated or maybe just sent into another fucking dimension where PEOPLE HAVE sense….

    Any thoughts on that? Anyone grasp that torture is fundamentally inhumane and cruel and sick and we are devolving into a bunch of “savage” monkeys with a bunch of fat balding gorillas eating all our fucking bananas??? I hate torture. I hate evil. I hate war. I hate propaganda. I hate this country’s agenda. I hate weapons. I hate drones. I hate bombs. I hate mind control. I hate liars. I hate everything evil. I hate Satan. I hate that Satan got a few pages in the Bible and I hate loaded opinions that have no basis.

    Thanks for opening up the debate. NO. Torture is simply torture.
    GO back to the 1920’s with your lies and create a new war machine!!!! I thought this was a more liberal website. No. Another BIG PHARMA PR CAMPAIGN RIGHT? Sheer irony that stupid people are breeding in droves while the rational ones are being mitigated with complacency from the truth of the horrors of our fucking nation that’s gone to hell. So face the fucking truth or wear the damn MASK JIM CARRY! Oh no it’s 2 pm, Time to turn a blind eye to it all. I bet our representatives are shooting up right now in the white house scumbags, watching MTV and Obama’s dancin to some skrillix plottin a new generation of …

    IDK what. oh yeah, the past fucking century and a half should tell us where it’s goin…… duuuuh?

  • Gabrielle


    SO DONE!

Sajid Surve, DO

Sajid Surve, DO, is a physiatrist, acupuncturist, and osteopath who specializes in musculoskeletal medicine and integrative medicine.

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