Blind Obedience to Evil

Why do some people blindly obey the commands of government even if it isn’t in their best interest?

Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale conducted a series of studies in the 1960s on the concepts of obedience and authority to answer just that question. 

In 1963, Milgram advertised for male participants to take part in his study.  Participants were separated into teachers and learners.  Those who Milgram called teachers were the only real participants.  The learners were actors Milgram had procured for the study.  Leaners were ushered into separate rooms and had electrodes attached to their arms.  Only the actor knew the electrodes were just props.

The teacher was instructed to ask a list of questions and told that if the learner gave an incorrect answer, he had to deliver him a shock.  The shocks started at a relatively mild level of 15 volts but increased in 15 volt increments up to 450 volts on each wrong answer.  While the teacher could not see the learner, he could hear screams as he administered the shock.

The learners had been instructed to give mainly wrong answers.  If the teacher refused or expressed hesitation to delivering a shock, he would be urged to continue with increasingly firm instructions, culminating in the statement: “You have no other choice, you must go on.”  The study ended when participants refused to obey the experimenter’s demand, or when they gave the learner the highest level of shock on the machine (450 volts). 

While all of the subjects raised some kind of objection during the test, all but one of the first 40 volunteers went right on administering shocks.  Two- thirds continued to 450 volts even though by that time, if the shocks had been real, the learners would be either unconscious or dead.  The others quit when they reached 300 volts.

The individual explanation for the behavior of the teachers was that it was something about them as an individual that caused them to obey and continue shocking the learners even as they screamed in pain. But a more realistic explanation for their behavior could be that the situation they were in actually influenced them to behave as they did.

People tend to obey orders when given by authority figures especially when the participants recognized that authority as morally right and/or legally based, even to the extent of killing an innocent human being. Obedience to authority is ingrained in us all from family, school, the workplace, etc.

Milgram summed up his study in “The Perils of Obedience” writing that in the face of authority, participants who had moral imperatives against hurting others continued administering shocks, even when their ears were ringing from the screams of the victims.  “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.”

In other words, Milgram found that people are more likely to carry out atrocious acts if they can be made to feel they have permission from a recognized authority figure (such as a bureaucrat/doctor in a lab coat or a senior officer in the SS) and their willingness increases if they are made to feel that the authority has taken moral responsibility for the actions they commit (mandates, executive orders).

In 2017, Social psychologists from SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Poland replicated a modern version of the Milgram experiment using 80 subjects, equally divided between male and female.  They found that nothing much has changed.  

A striking majority of subjects are still willing to electrocute a helpless individual. If nothing else, the so-called pandemic and the left’s willingness to destroy anyone who refuses to obey, proves the validity of both studies.

Source:  The Milgram Shock Experiment by Saul McLeod, Simply Psychology; The Milgram Experiment by Jeff Riggenbach, Mises Institute; Conducting the Milgram experiment in Poland, psychologists show people still obey, Science Daily

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