The Echoes of the Mind (151-2) Obedience


The disappearance of a sense of responsibility is the most far-reaching consequence of submission to authority. ~ Stanley Milgram

Obedience to authority figures runs strong in every society. American social psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted experiments that demonstrated this.

Milgram, a Jew, sought to understand how the Holocaust was so neatly accomplished. Milgram ran experiments with American participants 1960–1974. The participants were cajoled into administering shocks at a level that would have been lethal (if they had actually been delivered).

Before carrying out his experiments, Milgram asked a variety of psychologists, psychiatrists, sociologists, and philosophers to guess how many subjects would be willing to deal out deadly volts. The consensus opinion was: 1/10th of 1% (1 in 1,000 people).

Many participants were hesitant to administer severe shocks. Some were severely stressed at the prospect. Yet the experimenter’s insistent verbal prods that “you must go on,” resulted in a 65% success rate of participants giving lethal jolts when they could not see the victim.

If participants could see the person being shocked writhe and howl in pain, only 40% were willing to apply deadly voltage. When Milgram added another punishment deliverer who refused to go along with the experiment, only 5% were willing to go all the way.

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority. ~ Stanley Milgram