The Milgram Obedience Experiment

Studies into psychology can help illuminate us into how people think and will behave in certain situations.  I had always wondered how Germans during the Holocaust could have knowingly assisted in a genocide effort.  Or, how does mob mentality work?  How could Americans support an unprovoked attack on Iraq?  And, how do war-mongers clear their conscience after it has been found that tey have been mislead?  Clearly, there must be some fear of self-harm or some kind of overpowering authority figure that should take the blame.  Those factors seems to be unnecessary.  Often, stating that one was “just following orders” seems to be enough to commit atrocious and barbaric acts.

The now infamous Milgram Experiment gave us some shocking insight into human behavior.  Conducted by Stanley Milgram in 1963, the experiment involved testing how people responded to authority figures.  The authority, of course, was just perceived – these were voice actors that were trained to repeat the same message.  Subjects in the experiment, however, were clearly told that they could discontinue the experiment at any time.

The experiment is the focus of a CBC program: The Big Picture: The Human Behaviour Experiments.  From the web site:

Why would four young men watch their friend die, when they could have intervened to save him? Why would a woman obey phone commands from a stranger to strip-search an innocent employee? What makes ordinary people perpetrate extraordinary abuses, like the events at Abu Ghraib? Answers to these contemporary questions can be found in past social psychology experiments. The Milgram obedience experiment shocked the world by proving that most people were willing to kill fellow human beings if an authority figure was held accountable. A famous diffusion-of-responsibility experiment sought to understand why 38 people who witnessed a brutal murder in New York did nothing to help. Finally, the Stanford Prison experiment showed how the world of the jail could transform a decent, moral person into a brutal, sadistic guard.

Documentarian Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) revisits these three famous behavioral studies to explore some perennial questions about why human beings commit unethical acts under particular social conditions. After seeing this film, you may never say “bad apples” again.

Additionally, you can find actual reactions in a pair of videos:

All the subjects are told to do is to continue the experiment.  They’re not being threatened, and they have no reason to believe that they will be harmed in any way.  In fact, they were just volunteers in the experiment.  The result: Approximately 50% of people knowingly administered a painful shock that they knew would be fatal.  This is despite the “students” begging for the pain to stop. 

Human nature, especially in a complex society, is something that is truly worth investigating.  Modern day America is perhaps one of the best starting points.  We live in a country where our leader has stated that he attacked a country unprovoked and without evidence because God told him to do it.  We have condoned torture and have approved the financing of hundreds of thousands of murderers.  While it’s easy to blame the “authority figures” in Washington, the ultimate responsibility should rest on the shoulders of “We, the people.”  I truly hope we can learn from these and other studies.  A lot of lives are at stake.

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1 Comment

  1. Doug nusbaum said,

    June 13, 2009 at 10:48 am

    Evolution dictates that authoritarian societies will be most competitive. By definition they must be comprised of a vast majority of people who are authoritarian, that is obedient to authority.

    See Sex and War by Malcolm Potts, Thomas Hayden, and my own blog
    Malcolm Potts, Thomas Hayden orwells boot


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