Mind Matters — Authority

Recently, in a conversation with friends, the question arose, “Why do people blindly follow authority?” This question prompted me to once again reflect upon some psychological experiments that began in 1961 in a little office at Yale University. The experimenter was Stanley Milgram.

Milgram’s post-World War II experiment set out to question how authority might trump an individual’s conscience. On the heels of the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, Milgram asked the questions, “Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?”

Psychologists surveyed prior to the actual experiments overwhelmingly believed that only the most sadistic and depraved would listen blindly to authority: Milgram proved otherwise.

His experiments and their variations went like this: Individuals were recruited through an advertisement to participate in a “learning experiment”. The subject of the experiment believed that he was randomly selected to be the “teacher” and likewise believed that the “learner” was also randomly selected. In truth, the “learner” was an actor, and the experimenter told the “teacher” that he was to deliver electric shocks to the “learner” whenever he got a wrong answer. The “learner” could not be seen, but the (feigned) loud cries of anguish and distress as the level of shock supposedly increased could be heard clearly by the “teacher”. There were no real shocks given, but the “teachers” were unaware of that. They were urged on by the experimenter to continue with the “learning” protocol despite the audible screams. Sixty-seven percent of the time, the “teacher” subject listened to authority with little question.

The psychologist Philip Zimbardo astounds us further by noting that even those who refused to administer the final “shocks” (everybody went up to what they thought was 300 volts) never asked that the experiments be stopped nor left the room to inquire about the “learner’s” well-being without asking permission to leave.

In his article, “The Perils of Obedience,” Milgram, in 1974, wrote:

“I set up a simple experiment … to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to. … Stark authority was pitted against the subject’s strongest moral imperative against hurting others, and with the subject’s ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any length on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.”

Psychologists “shot the messenger” Milgram, saying that his handling of the subjects was unethical. Nevertheless, his experiments provide continual examination of our collective conscience.

Milgram’s work has been replicated, always with similar results. So the question remains: How can we become individuals with conscience in the face of authority? How do we remain guided by our own moral compass so as not to inflict pain and abuse upon another human being even in the name of some “good cause” as defined by the prevailing authority?