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Obedience and Authority

Stanley Milgram's 'shocking' experiment still resonates.

by James Leroy Wilson
April 6, 2006

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Obedience and Authority
They answered a newspaper ad calling for volunteers for a psychology experiment. Each one arrived for their appointment and met the person running the experiment and another volunteer, or so they thought. The other "volunteer" was really an actor.
They were told the experiment was about the relationship between punishment and learning. By a seemingly random draw that was actually rigged, each one of the real volunteers was selected to be the "teacher." They were shown a machine that would supposedly give the "student" – the actor – an electric shock for every wrong answer he gave in a word combination exercise. There were thirty levers on the machine. The first would administer 15 volts and each successive one had 15 additional volts until the last one had 450. For each incorrect answer the student gave, the teacher was supposed to administer the next lever, so that each shock was 15 volts more powerful than the last. The machine was fake and no real shocks were administered, but the volunteers didn't know that.
As the test went on, the reactions of the student, who was in a separate room, to the "shocks" given to him became ever more unpleasant, as one would expect. The teacher would hear screaming, banging on the walls, pleas of "let me out!" and "I have a heart condition!" and then, silence - even though the test wasn't finished.  And the "teachers" became ever more uncomfortable administering the shocks, and would often ask the experimenter if the test should end. But the experimenter insisted it continue. The situation became very stressful for the teachers.
The experiment, as you may have figured out by now, wasn't about the relationship between punishment and learning. It was about obedience to authority. The "student" was really an actor, and the volunteers who played the "teacher" were the real subjects of the experiment.
Despite not wanting to, sixty-five percent of the subjects continued through the test all the way up to pressing the 450 volt lever. Only 35% quit before then.
And no one was coerced. The experimenter wasn't holding a gun to their head. They weren't breaking any laws if they walked out. What they did do was defer to the supposed authority and expertise of the experimenter. They were "only following orders," even though they hated it. Even though these orders were to basically torture a fellow human being.
This experiment took place in New Haven by Yale University professor Stanley Milgram beginning in July, 1961 with results published two years later. I learned about it from Milgram's biographer Dr. Thomas Blass, interviewed on Coast to Coast the night of April 4.
Blass also discussed another experiment Milgram conducted a decade later while teaching in his native New York, after his mother said that no one offers their seat to gray-haired ladies anymore. Milgram sent his students to the subway trains, telling them to ask people if they could give up their seat. More than fifty percent did give up their seat to young grad students – because they were asked.
Another phenomenon that fascinated Milgram, who passed away in 1984, was the "familiar stranger," people we see virtually every day at the same time and place, but whose names we don't know and with whom we never speak. I recall Blass saying that the average person has four familiar strangers in their lives.
It seems that people tend to be reticent, perhaps more than they used to be. That's why they don't go out of their way to speak to strangers, even "familiar" ones. And perhaps this reticence leads to self-absorption; lost in our own thoughts, we are oblivious to old ladies who would appreciate our seat. But most people are not overly selfish, malicious, or sadistic. 
Indeed, the reason so many gave up their seat to young adults when asked is probably the same reason we tip waitresses. There's no law requiring it, and while there may be a social expectation encouraging such courteous behavior, "society" doesn't watch our every move. In any given instance, we can get away with being rude. But our instinct is to try to please people with whom we have a relationship however shallow or brief, such as a waitress in a restaurant we won't likely visit again. We don't want to be held responsible for inducing disappointment in others. So we tip even bad waitresses. And most of us would give up our subway seat to a perfectly healthy grad student if he or she asks. Complying with even odd and inappropriate requests is easier and less awkward than saying no to even a stranger.
In the obedience experiment the person the subject was trying to please was not the "student" in the other room but the experimenter who was giving the instructions. The choice was inflicting suffering on the stranger who couldn't be seen, and refusing the requests of the stranger right in the same room. Individuals do not want to look bad, stupid, or stubborn in front of others, even strangers.
There is, of course, more to it than that. The experiment was, after all, about obedience to authority, not compliance with the requests of strangers. If a scientist's word is favored over one's own conscience, imagine how much more power a President could have, especially if his words confirms one's own prejudices. Imagine the bind that soldiers face when their commanding officers issue orders that appear to be illegal and immoral. After all, the commander may understand the bigger picture and knows what he's doing.
Lord Acton said that power tends to corrupt, I don't think we should assume that power corrupts only the powerful. It corrupts the ordinary person's mind and conscience. Normally honorable impulses are played against each other. Loyalty and humility – the keys to deference to authority - are pitted against the sense of compassion and morality that abhors cruelty and suffering. Letting others exercise authority over us will sooner or later create that dilemma. But it's a dirty trick. There are no such dilemmas.
We would do well to train our children to be rebels, to be disobedient. We should teach them to refuse to do anything they believe to be wrong. That an order to inflict suffering is unjust and the "authority" that gives the order is illegitimate.
The sooner people refuse to obey unjust orders from authority figures, the sooner wars will end and tyranny will disappear.

Comments (1)

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Tom Osborne from Los Angeles writes:
May 1, 2006
Exactly. Each individual must feel empowered to be his own authority and if it LOOKS wrong, it probably is.

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