I remember a college psychology class where we talked about a study that hit me. The study was about electrical shock... I don't remember what they told the participants they were studying, but they lied to them. There was an actor behind a window/blinder so that the subject could hear, but not see the actor (the subject also didn't know that the person there was an actor). There was a guy in a white lab coat who was a leader of sorts who gave commands (I think he was the study administrator). The subject sat at a desk and was in charge of giving electrical stimulation to the actor (who didn't actually feel anything, but would pretend he did). The subject was directed to press a button to give an electrical shock to the actor, wait a moment, turn up the voltage and give another shock. As the voltage increased, the actor would make louder expressions of how much the shock hurt. The subjects would generally look to the supervisor to see if it was OK to continue, he would indicate to continue. Although a few would refuse, the vast majority continued to shock the individual, thinking that they were administering a substantial amount of pain to the actor. At a certain voltage level, after much screaming, the actor would stop making any noise at all, leaving the subject to wonder if he was unconscious or even dead. Many of the subjects would continue to shock the non-responding actors even after they stopped responding to the shock.
Looking at the results, psychologists say that it was the guy in the lab coat (which certainly makes them all knowing) saying that it was OK to continue was a major contributor to the continuing shock. The subjects felt distanced from the actor, they were merely following orders. It certainly wasn't their fault that this official looking guy was directing them to administer pain and possibly death. The subjects felt distanced from the outcome because it was just how things worked. They were part of the situation and unable to make a difference.
How would I react as the subject in this situation? I don't know. I like to think I would stand up and walk out, or better yet, go rescue the poor guy being shocked. Most people didn't do that. Am I that special someone who would take a stand, or another lemming that would just follow along? Do I want to know the answer to that? Of course I don't want to be another of the multitude that would have continued administering pain to another human being. But if I were one of the select who was able to stand up and walk out, does that increase my responsibility in this life? I think it does, but I don't know that I can make the differences that I want to see made.
In how many other aspects of our life our we distanced from consequences so that we keep doing something that is really detrimental for ourselves and others around us? I spend a lot of time studying obesity and weight maintenance. We are distanced from the consequences of over eating by time. If every time you overate a little you felt terrible and gained several pounds and had to buy a new wardrobe, i don't think that obesity would be the problem that it is. Or even more obvious, if when you overate, you died of a heart attack, fewer people would overeat... or we would have a lot fewer people in the world.
Another place where we are distanced from consequences is driving. Automobiles contribute to the five leading causes of death. Those are cardiovascular disease, cancer, stroke, pulmonary diseases and accidents. Automobile exhaust and/or the sedentary lifestyle promoted by car travel are major contributors to the first four leading causes of death. The majority of deaths caused by accidents involve a motorist. While I don't think we need to get rid of all motorized vehicles, we do need to rethink transportation to make it safer. I've heard it argued that putting in public transportation infrastructure is expensive. Isn't health care also expensive? We need to look beyond the price tag toward long term consequences. Automobile traffic is contributing to the death of my family. I am unwilling to put a price tag on that, health is the most valued asset that i have, even beyond the convenience of a car.