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Will “Human Nature” Affect Our Long-term Survival? -A Galaxy Classic

Space_travel_2 It’s a given that Earth cannot survive indefinitely, if for no other reason than that the sun will eventually expand and roast the planet. Of course, many scientists believe that by the time that happens, life will have long since disappeared on this planet for other reasons—many of them involving manmade disasters. Are they just being pessimistic, or realistic, or both?

Human behavior is often inexplicably bizarre, destructive and counterintuitive, and yet we’ve made it this far. However, in the past, we haven’t had the technological means to cause mass destruction to life on the planet. Now we do, says Sir Martin Rees, and he thinks we’ll get around to using it to our own detriment sooner or later. In fact, the Royal Society Research Professor at Cambridge and Britain's Astronomer Royal says he believes humans have only a 50% chance of making it through just the next century alone.

Many other notable scientists agree with Rees predictions, although they all seem to have a favorite doomsday scenario from super-viruses to meteor impacts. For renowned scientist James Lovelock, the world has already passed the point of no return due to climate change. He writes, "Before this century is over, billions of us will die, and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic, where the climate remains tolerable." He doesn’t even advocate cutting CO2 emissions, because he says it’s a case of too little too late at this point.

That sounds really pessimistic, so lets hope the climate models are WAY off. In the book Our Final Hour, Rees points out that, climate change aside, humans are still in far greater danger from the potential effects of modern technology and our own inexplicably destructive natures than we commonly realize. According to Rees, the 21st century is a critical moment in history when humanity's fate is decided.

While some of the dangers predicted involve natural events, such as super-eruptions and asteroid impacts, Rees seems to think that the man-made disasters like engineered viruses, nuclear terrorism, and even a take-over by super-intelligent machines, are just as significant, if not more, of a threat to our long-term survival.

If you think the answer is to simply keep the “crazy” or “evil” people locked up, consider that you’re going to need to lock down everyone on the planet—including yourself!  Cracked writer Alexandra Gedrose recently (and quite amusingly I might add) summed up the 5 psychological experiments that clearly illustrate how every human being on this planet is a potential psychopath, making the prognosis for humanity’s long-term future look even more grim.

Gedrose notes how “you have to be careful when you go poking around the human mind because you're never sure what you'll find there. A number of psychological experiments over the years have yielded terrifying conclusions about the subjects.”

Here are the five frightening psychological experiments (a condensed version of Gedrose’s darkly humorous summary) that indicate the human race is going to hell in a hand-basket sooner rather than later: 

The Asch Conformity Experiment (1953)

The Setup:
Solomon Asch wanted to run a series of studies that would document the power of conformity, for the purpose of depressing everyone who would ever read the results.

Subjects were told that they would be taking part in a vision test, along with a handful of people. The participants were then shown pictures, and individually asked to answer very simple and obvious questions. The catch was that everybody else in the room other than the subject was in on it, and they were were told to give obviously wrong answers. So would the subject go against the crowd, even when the crowd was clearly and retardedly wrong?

The Result:
Over 1/3 (32%) of the subjects would answer incorrectly if they saw that three others in the classroom gave the same wrong answer. Even when the line was plainly off by a few inches, it didn't matter. One in three would follow the group right off the proverbial cliff.

The Good Samaritan Experiment (1973)

The Setup:
The Biblical story of the Good Samaritan, if you hadn't heard, is about a passing Samaritan helping an injured man in need, while other, self-righteous types walk right on by. Psychologists John Darley and C. Daniel Batson wanted to test if religion has any effect on helpful behavior.

Their subjects were a group of seminary students. Half of the students were given the story of the Good Samaritan and asked to perform a sermon about it in another building. The other half were told to give a sermon about job opportunities in a seminary.

As an extra twist, subjects were given different times that they had to deliver the sermon so that some would be in a hurry and others not.

Then, on the way to the building, subjects would pass a person slumped in an alleyway, who looked to be in dire need of help.

The Result:
The people who had been studying the Good Samaritan story did not stop any more often than the ones preparing for a speech on job opportunities. The factor that really seemed to make a difference was how much of a hurry the students were in.

In fact, if pressed for time, only 10 percent would stop to give any aid, even when they were on their way to give a sermon about how awesome it is for people to stop and give aid.

Bystander Apathy Experiment (1968)

The Setup:
When a woman was murdered in 1964, newspapers printed that 38 people had heard and seen the attack, but did nothing. John Darley and Bibb Latane wanted to know if the fact that these people were in a large group played any role in the reluctance to come to aid.

The two psychologists invited volunteers to take part in a discussion. They claimed that because the discussion would be extremely personal (probably asking about the size of their genitals or something) individuals would be separated in different rooms and talk to each other using an intercom.

During the conversation, one of the members would fake an epileptic seizure, which could be heard on the speakers.

The Result:
When subjects believed that they were the only other person in the discussion, 85 percent were heroic enough to leave the room and seek help once the other began the fake seizure. So that's good, right?

It get worse. When the experiment was altered so that subjects believed four other people were in the discussion, only 31 percent went to look for help once the seizure began. The rest assumed someone else would take care of it. So the phrase, "The more, the merrier" somehow got lost in translation because the correct expression should be, "The more, the higher probability that you will die if you have a seizure."

The Stanford Prison Experiment (1971)

The Setup:
Psychologist Philip Zimbardo wanted to find out how captivity affects authorities and inmates in prison. Sounds innocent enough. Seriously, what could go wrong?

Zimbardo transformed the Stanford Psychology Department's basement into a mock prison. Subjects volunteered by simply responding to a newspaper ad and then passing a test proving good health and high-quality mental stability. These volunteers were all male college students who were then divided arbitrarily into 12 guards and 12 prisoners. Zimbardo himself decided that he wanted to play too, and elected himself Prison Superintendent. The simulation was planned to run for two weeks.

Yep, nothing at all can go wrong with this.

The Result:
It took about one day for every subject to go nutes. On only the second day, prisoners staged a riot in the faux detention center, with prisoners barricading their cells with their beds and taunting the guards. The guards saw this as a pretty good excuse to start squirting fire extinguishers at the insurgents. Guards began forcing inmates to sleep naked on the concrete, restricting the bathroom as a privilege (one that was often denied). They forced prisoners to do humiliating exercises and had them clean toilets with their bare hands.

Incredibly, when "prisoners" were told they had a chance at parole, and then the parole was denied, it didn't occur to them to simply ask out of the damned experiment. Remember they had absolutely no legal reason to be imprisoned, it was just a damned role-playing exercise. This fact continued to escape them as they sat naked in their own filth, with bags on their heads.

Over 50 outsiders had stopped to observe the prison, but the morality of the trial was never questioned until Zimbardo's girlfriend, Christina Maslach, strongly objected. After only six days, Zimbardo put a halt to the experiment (several of the "guards" expressed disappointment at this).

Give us absolute power over somebody and a blank check from our superiors, and Abu Ghraib-esque naked pyramids are sure to follow. Hey, if it can happen to a bunch of Vietnam-era hippie college students, it sure as hell could happen to you.

The Milgram Experiment (1961)

The Setup:
When the prosecution of the Nazis got underway at the Nuremberg Trials, many of the defendants' excuse seemed to revolve around the ideas of, "I'm not really a prick" and, "Hey man, I was just following orders." Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram wanted to test willingness of subjects to obey an authority figure using an experiment where the subject was told he was a "teacher" and that his job was to give a memory test to another subject, located in another room. The whole thing was fake and the other subject was an actor.

The subject was told that whenever the other guy gave an incorrect answer, he was to press a button that would give him an electric shock. A guy in a lab coat was there to make sure he did it (again no real shock was being delivered, but the subject of course did not know this).

The subject was told that the shocks started at 45 volts and would increase with every wrong answer. Each time they pushed the button, the actor on the other end would scream and beg for the subject to stop.

So, can you guess how this went?

The Result:
Many subjects began to feel uncomfortable after a certain point, and questioned continuing the experiment. However, each time the guy in the lab coat encouraged them to continue. Most of them did, upping the voltage, delivering shock after shock while the victim screamed. Many subjects would laugh nervously, because laughter is the best medicine when pumping electrical currents through another person's body.

Eventually the actor would start banging on the wall that separated him from the subject, pleading about his heart condition. After further shocks, all sounds from victim's room would cease, indicating he was dead or unconscious. If you had to guess, what percentage of the subjects kept delivering shocks after that point?

Five percent? Ten?

Shockingly (pun intended), two thirds of the subjects (between 61 and 66 percent) continued the experiment until it reached the maximum voltage of 450, continuing to deliver shocks after the victim had been zapped into unconsciousness or the afterlife. Repeated studies have shown the same result: Subjects will mindlessly deliver pain to an innocent stranger as long as a dude in a lab coat says it's OK.

Most subjects wouldn't even begin to object until after 300-volt shocks. Zero of them asked to stop the experiment before that point (keep in mind 100 volts is enough to kill a man, in some cases).

Charles Sheridan and Richard King took this experiment one step further, but asked subjects to shock a helpless puppy for every incorrect action it made. Unlike Milgram's experiment, this shock was real. Exactly 20 out of 26 subjects went to the highest voltage.

Almost 80 percent. Think about that when you're walking around the mall: Eight out of ten of those people you see would torture the shit out of a puppy if a dude in a lab coat asked them to. If you would guess that women—commonly believed to be more nurturing than men—were more compassionate in this study, then you would guess wrong. The six students who refused to go on were all men. All thirteen women who participated in the experiment shocked the hell out of the sweet, adorable puppy right up until the end.

But it’s worth considering that humankind’s unpredictability goes both ways. We might not make it through the century, but on the other hand, we might evolve into a highly rational, peace-loving race that goes on to colonize the entire universe. You just never can tell.

Posted by Rebecca Sato

Related Galaxy posts:

The "Hawking Solution": Will Saving Humanity Require Leaving Earth Behind?
Dr Strangelove Two? -Cambridge Astrophysicist Gives Earthlings a 50/50 Chance of Making it Through the Century

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That was a great article. I'm no great believer in the rationality of humans but I find it comforting that we are not in a way so overarchingly gifted. Then the mistakes would be bigger.

Very good article (I rate it 4 to 5 stars).

All good experiments.....that testify that the human mind in case of NOT studied events and situations starts to push us towards bad or ridiculous behaviour.

Fortunaltely those were just limited examples or 'limited samples of humans' ...

We do NOT understand from any of the above experiments how-if the sample of humans under the test was a 'significant & representative sample' of the humans kind....(that means NO serious statistics could be extrapolated).

Some results however may generate discomfort.....
BUT again the behaviour of few is NOT representative of the overal human kind nature.

When you expose some guys may be NOT properly selected to play games without any previous training and explanations....the good and wise behaviour of intelligent bipeds that we supposedly 'agree to be' .....tends to disappear...

These tests results do NOT surprise me much...

At the end of the day we are NOT as intelligent as we 'self-declare' we are.

In other simpler words the so called 'Sapiens - sapiens' is still at the best sapiens with significant remnants of the Neandhertal...or before hominids.


yes nice artical! you get a rating of 16 gold bananas from me.

When you expose some guys may be NOT properly selected to play games without any previous training and explanations....the good and wise behaviour of intelligent bipeds that we supposedly 'agree to be' .....tends to disappear...

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