A Milgram Thought Experiment

Would you cause someone intense emotional pain for no other reason than financial gain? 

If you answered yes, then you should work for Farmers Insurance.

Imagine a woman. Here is what you know about this woman:

Her amazing, wonderful, brave, hilarious, irreplaceable almost-5-year-old son died unexpectedly less than a week ago. This has nothing to do with you or your job, but she cannot stop talking about, as it has shaped her whole world.

Here is what else you know:  Due to faulty wiring, a breaker probably not tripping, and a very cold day, this woman has now also lost her pets. Her entire home. All of her son's baby things. His baby footprints, the book where she recorded all of his milestones and wrote him letters,  all the physical proof that this child existed. She has also lost everything relating to her two surviving sons, such as the gifts from Santa that aren't even two weeks old, their clothing, shoes, beds, security. Most of her photographs. Her journals and writings. Her clothing and car and carseats. All her food. All the things she used to cook, clean, put her children to bed with. Things that belonged to her great-grandmother. Things she had planned on passing down to her children.

This is not your fault, but it is your job to make it right. She has been paying you, your company, faithfully according to the contract. You know the amount of money you should pay out to her.


Maybe your boss, maybe your pride in your job, maybe just capitalism, tells you this: The less you give her, the more you yourself might have.

So she sits before you, crying. You make her do extremely emotional things. You tell her to write lists of everything she lost, to prove she owned it. You know everything on this list will remind her of the son, pets, and security she and her children have lost. You know she has to spend hours and hours sorting through memories and finding prices. And then, when she gives you the list, you ignore it. You don't use the prices. You cross off some of the items as if they never existed. You tell her her belongings were worthless. 

You know, again, that all of the money is hers. But the more time you take, the more you make her cry, the more hoops you make her jump through, the more memories you force her to relive--the less strength she will have to claim it. She will get tired. No one can keep on like this.

It has been over four months now, and you haven't helped her replace the food or clothing for her surviving children. Why should you? Yes, the money is hers, but she hasn't called begging enough. You have excuses lined up, vacations you and the people who are in charge of the details need to take. She can wait. She can get weaker. You throw her a very small amount to make yourself look generous. You call it an "advance", as if the loss had yet to happen. You eye the money she should have, think about the winter coats her children needed all these months and the swimsuits and sunscreen and hats they now need. She paid you to ensure that, if she lost it all, she could get it back. But that's not your concern, really, despite the fact that you know that legally it is, and that you are the only person who could help ease her suffering.

Do you pay any attention to her pain? Or do you just eye her money and think how you can withhold it, how pleased your boss will be of you when you do? Do you go home and tell your spouse how proud you are of this? Is she a person to you? Do you think of the children's artwork that burned on the walls (worthless)? Or the actual artwork (worth a lot, if she can prove it, and she tells you she can and has the papers, but you just ignore that)? 

It's been five and a half months now, and you decide to make an offer. It is less than a third of the amount she has been paying for, but you add in that she can earn some of it back with receipts. She is speechless. You are triumphant.

Eventually she recovers enough to tell you that this is not ok, that you need to follow the laws. You tell her to dig through photographs (knowing everything not digital was lost). You tell her to produce receipts. (Paper is extremely flammable.) You know how badly this hurts her, that she must yet again sort through all the memories, being hit anew by all she has lost. You know she is essentially making the same list as before. You know you will ignore it. You know she will spend several weeks in deep pain. You will probably offer her a bit more, but not the whole sum.

How long will you do this? Or rather, how long will the woman be able to endure? Sooner or later, she will need to buy beds, appliances. How little will she settle for? How much will you gain?

How much pain will you cause her and her children for financial gain?

How many other people are you doing this to?

"Get back where you belong" is Farmers Insurance's motto. You love how vague it is. You know the woman and her children think they belong in their home, with their belongings. But you don't. You don't think they belong anywhere at all, and you will do your best to make sure they get as little as possible to rebuild their lives, because that's your job. You sleep in your own home, surrounded by your own belongings. Has it ever occurred to you that you might lose them? That you might become the woman? She did everything right, after all. There was nothing she could have done differently.

But maybe if you keep enough of her money, if it happens to you, it won't matter. Maybe you can keep yourself safe by stealing from her. Is that why you do it? Or for fun? Or just because it's your job?

Push the button and hear her cries. Just ignore them. She'll stop eventually.