One of the most famous psychological studies of obedience was carried out by Stanley Milgram at Yale University in the early sixties. During the Nuremberg War Criminal trials, the accused had been defending themselves on the basis that they had simply been following orders from their superiors. So, in July 1961, a year after the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, Milgram was keen to find some answers to the most persistent and pervasive questions being pondered and debated at the time: “Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?” He proposed a study focusing on the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience. To assist with his experiments, he sought 40 male volunteers from the community (factory workers, professional people, telephone workers, white collar workers – anyone between the ages of 20 and 50, not including high school and college students) and they duly responded to his newspaper advertisements and arrived at the laboratory.
The procedure was that the participant was paired with another person and they drew lots to find out who would take the role of ‘pupil’ and who would be the ‘teacher’. In fact, the draw was fixed so that the participant was always the ‘teacher’. The ‘pupil’, Mr Wallace, one of Milgram’s confederates, pretending to be a genuine participant, was taken into a room and had electrodes attached to his arms. The ‘teacher’ and a researcher (dressed in a grey lab coat, played by an actor) went into an adjoining room that contained an electric shock generator and a row of thirty switches marked in a range from 15 volts (labelled ‘slight shock’) to 375 volts (labelled ‘danger: severe shock’) and right up to 450 volts (labelled ‘XXX’). After learning a list of word pairs, Mr Wallace was tested and the ‘teacher’ was instructed to administer an electric shock every time the wrong answer was given (Mr Wallace deliberately provided mainly wrong answers). Each successive mistake resulted in an increase in the level of shock. In reality, no shocks were being delivered. But the ‘teacher’ didn’t know that.
Of course, the key question was: how far would they go? Would the ‘teacher’ keep turning up the voltage of the shock? At a certain point, Mr Wallace would start yelling things like “Ow! That’s really painful! That really hurts! I don’t want to do this anymore!” The researcher would then prompt the ‘teacher’ in an authoritative way to just keep going: “The experiment requires you to continue.” Two-thirds of the participants continued to the highest level of 450 volts. All the participants continued to 300 volts.
The experiment demonstrated that obedience to authority is ingrained in all of us from the way we are brought up. People tend to obey orders from recognised authority figures. Milgram summed this up in his 1974 article ‘The Perils of Obedience’, writing: “The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous import, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.” He went on to explain the behaviour of the participants by suggesting that people have two states of behaviour when they are in a social situation:
1. The autonomous state – in which people direct their own actions and take responsibility for the results of those actions, and
2. The agentic state – in which people allow others to direct their actions and then pass off the responsibility for the consequences to the person giving the orders. In other words, they act as agents for another person’s will.
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