You Vill Obey!
It’s no secret that human beings at times have an amazing capacity to do cruel things to each other. All you need to do is flick on the news any day of the week to see some kind of atrocity being inflicted on somebody else. Ever since man first stepped out of the cave, we have been developing more effective and efficient ways of inflicting extreme cruelty, even death, onto one another. Think of the Spanish Inquisition, the Holocaust, the My Lai Massacre by American soldiers in Vietnam, New York’s Twin Towers or, more recently, the takeover of Kabul by the Taliban.
In an effort to understand how ordinary people could take part in such awful acts, researcher and professor Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment in the early 1960s that has been dubbed ‘perhaps the most dramatic experiment in psychology in the 20th century’. He was interested in obedience, and why people obey authority in particular.
The experiment, which Milgram carried out more than once, involved three people; let’s call them the student, teacher and scientist. The teacher would test the student’s memory using paired words, and if the student got one wrong then the scientist would instruct the teacher to administer an electric shock to the student. The more words the student got wrong, the higher the voltage of the shock.
Now, I’m sure there are plenty of genuine teachers out there who would love to electrocute their students, but unbeknown to the poor teacher in the experiment, both the student and the scientist were in fact actors, and the electric shocks weren’t real. The fake scientist would use phrases such as, “The experiment requires you continue,” and the fake student would deliberately get words wrong and then fake being electrocuted.
In some cases, the voltage climbed as high as 450 volts and the teacher would still execute the shock because they were instructed to do so by the scientist, or authority figure. It sounds awful, but the reality was that some of the poor teachers, who weren’t in on the deception, would still inflict the shock just because the scientist said they had to, despite saying they didn’t want to do it. In the 18 times that this experiment was carried out, Milgram discovered 65 per cent of the experiment’s teachers would hit the electric shock button. Furthermore, he found that the combination of the remoteness of the victim, the authority of the person giving the orders and the presence of others who also obeyed, increased the likelihood of someone complying with orders to kill.
The take-home message here is that it’s not the case that the experiment’s unsuspecting teachers are giving their will over to the scientist, but rather that the scientist has the ability to persuade them that they have a moral obligation to hit the shock button.
If we look at the lockdown scenario during the current COVID Delta variant’s spread, it’s understandable that some of us want to revolt, but the fact remains that the majority of us are willing to comply with the health orders. Is this just because we are being told to do so by an authority figure? It’s certainly a possibility. Either way, it turns out that obeying authority is more the norm rather than the exception. As Milgram discovered, we all have the potential to bow to authority, and unfortunately, the results from his experiment still ring true today.
So, if you want to know what the man himself concluded, maybe this quote from his book Obedience to Authority might sum it up. “The social psychology of this century reveals a major lesson: often it is not so much the kind of person that a person is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act.”
Heavy stuff, but his remark can be considered in the context of many different conditions including depression, anxiety and addiction, among others. It’s worth considering that you may behave differently if you are in a shitty situation, compared with when you’re not. If you were the teacher in Milgram’s experiment, what do you think you would do?
P.S. Milgram’s experiment is up on YouTube if you’d like to take a closer look.
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