In the Sixties, a groundbreaking series of experiments found that 65 per cent of us would kill if ordered to do so.
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Hitler addressing the Hitler Youth in 1938
We have vain brains; we see ourselves as better than we really are. We like to think that we exercise free will, that put into a situation where we were challenged to do something we thought unacceptable then we'd refuse. But, if you believe that, then you are probably deluded.
I make this claim, based partly on the work of psychologist Stanley Milgram. Milgram devised and carried out ingenious experiments that exposed the frailty and self-delusion that are central to our lives. He showed how easy it is to make ordinary people do terrible things, that "evil" often happens for the most mundane of reasons.
I first read about Milgram's work when I was a banker in the Seventies, working in the City. I was so fascinated by his ideas that I re-trained as a doctor, with the intention of becoming a psychiatrist. Instead I became a science journalist. Recently I got the chance to make The Brain: A Secret History
, a television series which reveals how much we have learnt about ourselves through the work of some of the 20th century's most influential, and deeply flawed, psychologists.
In the course of making the series we found rare archive and first-hand accounts of the many inventive and sometimes sinister ways in which experimental psychology has been used to probe, tease, control and manipulate human behaviour. High on the list of psychologists I wanted to learn more about was Stanley Milgram.
The son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Milgram struggled to understand how it was that German soldiers in the Second World War were persuaded to take part in barbaric acts, such as the Holocaust. As he once wrote: "How is possible, I ask myself, that ordinary people who are courteous and decent in everyday life could act callously, inhumanely, without any limitations of conscience."
Milgram was working as an assistant professor at Yale University in 1960 when he dreamt up an experiment that would try to answer that question. It was beautifully designed to reveal uncomfortable truths about human nature. Milgram described the moment he had the idea as "incandescent".