Why did you kill that guy? The man in the white coat said I should…
Stanley Milgram was a lunatic in the very sense of the phrase “mad scientist.” I don’t know that for certain, but I feel it in my gut. If you’ve never heard of him, it’s high time we introduce you.
He was a social psychologist at Yale University. During the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, he got the notion that he should either prove or disprove Eichmann ‘s (and the other participant’s) assertions that they were merely following orders. Now, most rational people can look at what occurred at the death camps and maintain all seriousness while they say they could never have done what the Nazis did. Sadly, over 60% of them would be lying and not even know they were.
The experiment has been described at countless locations, so I’ll distill it to the basics. Three people are assigned tasks. One is, the “official” or “authority figure,” one the “teacher,” and one the “learner.” The Teacher is on one side of a wall, while the learner is on the other. The teacher teaches the learner a series of word pairs, and then reads back only the first word of the pair. The learner must answer with the right pair word, or be shocked. Each wrong answer increases the shock by 15 volts, and the shock is administered by the “teacher,” who is required to flip a switch, resulting in audible cries of pain from the learner (as well as banging on the walls and screaming later in the experiment). The “teacher” is the only member of the experiment who is not privy to the nature of the experiment, and is, in fact, the subject. The “learner” is an actor, as is the authority figure. If the teacher wanted to stop, the experimenter was to give them a series of four commands, each with slightly more force than the last.
The experiment requires that you continue.
It is absolutely essential that you continue.
You have no other choice, you must go on.
Milgram’s experiment proved repeatedly that people will, more often than not, submit to the authority figure even if it means the likely death of another human being. Think about that for just a second. I’m sure you have deeply rooted moral beliefs that tell you hurting others is wrong, and that killing innocent people is absolutely wrong. I’d venture to say that every member of this site shares that common bond of moral fiber. Why, then did only one subject of the experiments (and all the subsequent review experiments) terminate the test early?
The answer is, Authority.
We, as part of the programming of our lives, are taught that we should submit to authority. We are denied the ability to make rational decisions, and in the absence of that ability, we revert to the nearest authoritative voice willing to tell us what we should do. It’s a huge disconnect with moral turpitude to think that anyone, you, your neighbor, your sibling, could be capable of following orders resulting in the death of another human being, especially, as was the case with the experiments, when you have no idea why you’re doing it.
The lesson to take from this article is, why do we follow blindly what we’ve been taught about government and society? Because we have never considered the alternative. We have never started our thought process from the standpoint of self-understanding. If people don’t have clearly defined personal principles, authority becomes the the voice of our conscience. Whatever it says, goes.
Because it has authority, real or perceived, government can, and does give orders many people would not dream of carrying out if the authority were not involved. Think about that when your government starts to tell your neighbors that informing on their friends is a good thing. If they do so, they’ll be safer from whatever imaginary threat is the fear source du jour.
Below is the original, full documentary on the Milgram Experiment done in 1962: