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Most of us like to believe that we would have been among those who stood up against the Nazis, but science shows differently. What does it take to be an upstander, rather than a bystander?

Just how much harm will people cause to others under the pretext of "merely following orders"? In the famous 1963 Milgram experiment, paid study participants were under the impression that they were delivering electric shocks ranging from 15 volts to a potentially fatal 450 volts to "learners", each time they gave a wrong answer to a question. "Learner" cries of pain increased with the voltage. When a study participant gave the impression they were uncomfortable with the experiment, they were prompted with "please continue", "the experiment requires you to continue", "it is absolutely essential that you continue", and finally "you have no other choice but to continue". 

For a full 63 percent of participants, these prompts were all it took to continue on to the end, and to deliver a shock of the highest voltage. Shockingly — pun intended — every single participant was willing to deliver a shock of 300 volts to another human being, simply for answering a question wrongly. They were "merely following orders". 

The Milgram experiment shows just how easy it is to get people — normal, everyday people, not psychopaths, not evil, crazy people, but people just like you and me — to go as far as killing people simply because an authority figure tells them to do so. It answered the question Stanley Milgram, the designer of the experiment, had in response to the fact that countless German citizens participated in the killing of others during the Holocaust: No, committing atrocities in the name of authority wasn't a uniquely German "quality". Rather, it is something we're all prone to

The Stanford prison experiment, conducted in 1971, did not involve the impression that those participants who were assigned a "guard" role had the power to kill prisoners. In a way, however, this experiment went even further than the Milgram experiment. The guards didn't just live up to their given role, they took it above and beyond, inflicting permanent psychological damage to those participants who were assigned the role of prisoners by behaving in an extremely sadistic manner. Lead researcher Philip Zimbardo himself witnessed the abuse the guards perpetrated and allowed it to continue — until yet another authority figure stepped in to make it stop. 

These scientific experiments, as well as the whole of human history, do a perfectly good job at demonstrating that it doesn't take someone especially violent-minded to turn into a beast. All that it takes is, indeed, the right environment. During such scientific experiments, every person either has the role of victim or perpetrator, and there are no bystanders. Real-life atrocities are different. Most people, though they may commit crimes against their fellow humans if given the opportunity, will be mere "bystanders".

Rather than taking an active role, these bystanders will simply try to survive, turning a blind eye and doing their best to live in denial. 

This held true for Germans and others during the Holocaust. It holds true for people currently living in ISIS-occupied territories. It even holds true in the case of events that will never make it into history books — in the case of bullied schoolchildren, or abused spouses. The majority of us are bystanders, not committing atrocities but not doing anything to help victims, either. 

Most of us, I believe, would like to be rather certain that they would have been among those who stood up to the Nazis during the Holocaust, rather than belonging to the faceless army of people who simply watched while others suffered, while others died. Most of us, history shows, would be wrong about that. 

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