Most people like to see themselves in a favourable light. Most people predict that virtually all human beings will refuse to obey to authority – especially, if the authority is making you hurt other human beings. Most people, however, are wrong.
In the early ´70s, the psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted his famous “Obedience to Authority Experiment” (see the book Obedience to Authority). The experiment helps explaining why ordinary people can commit the most awful crimes, just because the crime is placed under influence of an authority. We have all heard the excuse: “I was just doing what I was told.”
The experiment: Two people come to a laboratory to take part in a study of memory and learning. One is “the teacher” and the other is “the learner”. A third person is present, “the experimenter”, who is also the authority telling “the teacher” something like “please continue” when he or she doubts the purpose of this so-called memory and learning-experiment. The real focus of the experiment is “the teacher”, because he or she is the one managing the shock-generator. For example, if “the learner” answers a question wrong, then “the teacher” should punish “the learner” with an electronic shock ranging from 15 volt to 450 volt – by the way, the electrical outlet in Denmark is 240 volt!
The purpose: “The aim of this investigation was to find when and how people would defy authority in the face of clear imperative,” Milgram writes.
The result: More than 60 percent of “the teachers” punish “the learners” all the way. Danger: Severe shock it says on the generator.
Milgram conducts many experiments (which have been repeated many times elsewhere by other psychologists); he changes the independent variables, for instance, the proximity of “the learner” to see how it might affect the dependent variable, “the teacher”. Also, this experiment tells that women are no less likely to punish than men. The situation or the circumstances affects both genders equally.
The book is a detailed description of the method, the approach, the theses and experiments, as well interesting reflections. It also describes those heroic person´s who actually have the courage to act out their beliefs. No more of this! Similar, Milgram emphasizes that the problem of obedience not only is psychological, but also reflects the form and shape of a society.
Let us turn back the time. Years before Milgram´s experiment, the world witnessed how ordinary Germans could commit the most sadistic crimes (and the world have seen it so many times afterwards: The Chinese invasion of Tibet in the fifties, to Vietnam´s My Lai, up to the abuses in the Abu Ghraib prison (for more info: see).
In 1968, the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote a very disturbing book Eichmann in Jerusalem. Here she coined the concept “banality of evil” when she described Eichmann as a pathetic and uninspired bureaucrat, and not as a monster. Eichmann required that hundreds of people submitted to his authority. And this form of obedience he required sitting safely behind his desk. The distance between the decision-maker and the people doing the job plays an important role, as Milgram´s experiment also illustrates.
”How are we to account for the diminishing obedience as the victim is brought closer?” Some of the answers that Milgram gives: Empathy, narrowing the cognitive field (difficult to exclude one from one´s thoughts, if he is close by), reciprocal and unity experience, etc. Furthermore – to continue with Eichmann – the Holocaust was staged through an intense devaluation of the victim. Call it brainwash.
Another psychologist, Philip Zimbardo has stressed the intimate relationship between the system, situation and individual. For instance, it is the leaders and decision-makers who maintain or create a system or society that opens up for more or less dehumanizing situations (or flourishing situations). Afterwards, these situations affect the behaviour of the individual. A simple example might illustrate this: You plan not to drink more than one glass of wine before going to a party, but then at the party everything changes due to the people, the good mood, the laughs and the flirting – the situation – that all makes one forget his or her moral imperative. It is part of being human to affect and be affected.
The point of these studies is not to condemn those who obey authority. Sometimes it might be advisable to follow: Do not cross this bridge! Rather, the main point is to acknowledge the great impact that situations have on our actions. Also, to be aware when one might fall for various forms of pressure due to simple needs of belonging or identification, and how one might overcome these obeying actions from actually to happen. For me it is a matter of freedom, that is to say being free to resist the blind or habitual obedience, as well as being willing to risk something by trying to match what happens the best possible way. It is the basic courage to take the decisions that actually liberates oneself. Do today what makes it easier to live a life worth living tomorrow.