This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal

"The Experiment Must Continue"

The episode reads like a transcript out of the most infamous psychological experiment of all time—the Milgram experiment. If you've ever taken any introductory psychology course, you've heard of it.

In the 1960s and '70s, Stanley Milgram, a Yale social psychologist, showed that a frightening number (65 percent) of ordinary people can become complicit in inflicting pain and even causing the death of another human. All it takes is the pretense that the experiment is for science (a social good), and an authority figure who would simply say "the experiment must continue" in the face of doubts.

Within that framework, Milgram got those 65 percent of participants to shock a subject—whom they could hear but not see—to presumable death. No subject was actually hooked up to a live current, but the "victim" in the other room would scream in pain nonetheless as the voltage increased. After 150 volts the "victim" would beg the experimenter to stop.

At that point, "nearly every participant paused, and most turned to the experimenter to indicate verbally or nonverbally their reluctance to continue," wrote Jerry M. Burger, a psychologist who replicated Milgram's experiment and findings (with stronger ethics) in 2009. "For students seeing the film for the first time, it is the jaw-dropping moment. The man said he wanted out. How could anyone continue?" We don't know. But it's a question that haunts humanity.

Milgram's experiment can explain the framework in which an organization like the CIA can create a system in which decent humans inflict pain on strangers. The social good: fighting the war on terror. The authority figure: CIA higher-ups who told personnel to continue enhanced interrogations despite doubts. In the Milgram experiment, participants were paid for their actions. Reportedly, the CIA paid officers who could waterboard $1,800 a day.

The Milgram experiment is less an explanation of why people cause harm than a demonstration that humans are plenty capable of it.

"Discussion and debate about how to interpret the findings have never ended," Burger wrote. "Nonetheless, most social psychologists appear to agree on one point. The obedience studies are a dramatic demonstration of how individuals typically underestimate the power of situational forces when explaining another person's behavior."

Instead of asking "How could they?" when thinking about CIA interrogators, we should really be asking, "Could I?" That science backs up the reported actions of the CIA doesn't amount to an apology or vindication. But it does show what humans are capable of.

CIA personnel were uncomfortable with the treatment of Abu Zubaydah.

In 2002, Zubaydah was one of the first CIA detainees to undergo an "enhanced" interrogation. According to the Senate torture report released this week, "At times Abu Zubaydah was described as 'hysterical' and 'distressed to the level that he was unable to effectively communicate.' " For a period of 20 days, he was routinely stripped naked, hit, waterboarded, locked in confinement boxes (for a total of 266 hours), and denied sleep. He appeared to grow conditioned by his captors, responding to snaps and eyebrow raises. CIA personnel on site didn't like what they saw, the report indicates, saying some were "disturbed by the use of the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques."

"It seems the collective opinion that we should not go much further," noted one.

"Several on the team profoundly affected "... some to the point of tears and choking up," reads another comment.

Instead of asking "How could they?" when thinking about CIA interrogators, we should really be asking, "Could I?"

And yet, despite the doubts raised by the CIA personnel—and despite the fact that by the sixth day of interrogation the CIA thought Zubaydah had no information of value to them—the reaction of CIA headquarters was positive and encouraging of the techniques.

"The aggressive phase at [DETENTION SITE GREEN] should be used as a template for future interrogation of high value captives," the cable from CIA higher-ups reads.

The CIA era of enhanced interrogation continued. But as some are asking now, why didn't it stop after this first poorly received incident?

"The Experiment Must Continue"

The episode reads like a transcript out of the most infamous psychological experiment of all time—the Milgram experiment. If you've ever taken any introductory psychology course, you've heard of it.

In the 1960s and '70s, Stanley Milgram, a Yale social psychologist, showed that a frightening number (65 percent) of ordinary people can become complicit in inflicting pain and even causing the death of another human. All it takes is the pretense that the experiment is for science (a social good), and an authority figure who would simply say "the experiment must continue" in the face of doubts.

Within that framework, Milgram got those 65 percent of participants to shock a subject—whom they could hear but not see—to presumable death. No subject was actually hooked up to a live current, but the "victim" in the other room would scream in pain nonetheless as the voltage increased. After 150 volts the "victim" would beg the experimenter to stop.

At that point, "nearly every participant paused, and most turned to the experimenter to indicate verbally or nonverbally their reluctance to continue," wrote Jerry M. Burger, a psychologist who replicated Milgram's experiment and findings (with stronger ethics) in 2009. "For students seeing the film for the first time, it is the jaw-dropping moment. The man said he wanted out. How could anyone continue?" We don't know. But it's a question that haunts humanity.

Milgram's experiment can explain the framework in which an organization like the CIA can create a system in which decent humans inflict pain on strangers. The social good: fighting the war on terror. The authority figure: CIA higher-ups who told personnel to continue enhanced interrogations despite doubts. In the Milgram experiment, participants were paid for their actions. Reportedly, the CIA paid officers who could waterboard $1,800 a day.

The Milgram experiment is less an explanation of why people cause harm than a demonstration that humans are plenty capable of it.

"Discussion and debate about how to interpret the findings have never ended," Burger wrote. "Nonetheless, most social psychologists appear to agree on one point. The obedience studies are a dramatic demonstration of how individuals typically underestimate the power of situational forces when explaining another person's behavior."

Instead of asking "How could they?" when thinking about CIA interrogators, we should really be asking, "Could I?" That science backs up the reported actions of the CIA doesn't amount to an apology or vindication. But it does show what humans are capable of.

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.