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Tali Sharot and Cass Sunstein on Habituation

Be careful what you get used to; or, Get used to what you care for

By asking the volunteers to increase the voltage one step at a time, Milgram was inducing emotional habituation. The volunteers may have felt some guilt at the beginning, but because the shocks increased by small increments, any feelings of guilt were likely less intense than they would otherwise have been. By the time the volunteers reached the high voltage, many of them appeared to have habituated to the idea of causing dreadful pain to another human being. It is fair to doubt whether so many of the volunteers would have complied if the high-voltage shock was the first that they were asked to administer.

Milgram’s study tells us something important about behavior outside the laboratory, and about how people can get used to not only lying and cruelty, but also horrors — including their own. For Milton Mayer’s staggering book about the rise of Nazism, for example, a man who lived in Germany at the time described the regime to the author: “Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse.”

He added: “If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked. … But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next.”

Tali Sharot and Cass Sunstein – Why People Fail to Notice Horrors Around Them

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