What factors push us to sacrifice an animal?

How far are we willing to go, in the name of science? Under what conditions does an individual set aside his empathy and commit acts contrary to his convictions, such as killing an animal? It is to these questions that the psychologist Laurent Bègue-Shankland tries to provide answers in a book, Faced with animals: our emotions, our prejudices, our ambivalences (Odile Jacob, 352 pages, €22.90). The professor of social psychology at Grenoble-Alpes University and director of the Maison des sciences de l’homme-Alpes recounts a vast scientific experiment conducted from 2018 to 2021, which aims to adapt a famous psychosocial research, the experience of Milgram, adapting it to an animal “victim”.

In the 1960s, the American Stanley Milgram had caused a stir by conducting work that was disturbing to say the least: overwhelmed by Hannah Arendt’s reflections on the “banality of evil” after the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, the psychologist wanted to test to what extent individuals subject to authority are capable of going against their conscience and committing acts of torture. The experiments, which relied on a dummy device and the participation of actors, had shown that, under the order of an authority figure, a majority of people were ready to inflict maximum electric shocks.

This experience, “a thousand times reproduced, a thousand times validated, with different variables”according to neuropsychiatrist Boris Cyrulnik, ” is one of the most well-known research in the social sciences today, notes Laurent Bègue-Shankland. Reproductions of this experiment demonstrate that the sightings weren’t just specific to 1960s America.” For the French psychologist, the explanations given by Milgram remain fragmentary: “Stanley Milgram speaks of the disempowerment of the individual. In his idea, the individual becomes a performing robot. It is spectacular as an explanation, but partly excessive. » In Milgram’s system, in fact, some refused the order of torture. Why this differentiated response? Why did some retain their capacity for insubordination?

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For the neuropsychiatrist and ethologist Boris Cyrulnik, who also signs the preface to Laurent Bègue-Shankland’s book, the phenomenon of submission deposited in our own memory: “We all have an imprint of the benefit paid at the beginning of our life by submission to authority, it is the relationship of influence with our mother. Submission brings us enormous benefits, for example it allows us to learn at school, but there are key moments when we access inner freedom, the age of the “no” around 3 years old and the adolescence, where we define ourselves in relation to ourselves and more in relation to our mother. »

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