THE PERILS OF OBEDIENCE
In 1960 Adolf Eichmann was tried in Jerusalem.
Eichmann was one of the major organisers of the holocaust.
His defence was that he was just following orders, therefore he couldn’t be held responsible.
Of course this was a ridiculous defence.
As if a normal human being would unthinkingly follow insane orders.
Eichmann was found guilty and hanged.
But one man in particular was intrigued by Eichmann’s defence.
In 1962 Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University, devised an experiment to see if this was as ridiculous as everyone thought it was.
He recruited forty men, aged between 20 and 50.
He told each participant they were to help with an experiment into learning.
In another room, unseen, would be another volunteer (actually an actor).
Over an intercom the participant would ask the other person a series of questions.
For every wrong answer they would administer an electric shock to the other person.
The shock would be mild at first, 15 volts.
With every wrong answer the shock would gradually increase.
Ultimately it would be a potentially lethal 450 volts.
Sitting next to the participant was a man in a white coat issuing instructions.
As the experiment started, and the answers were wrong, the participant was told to issue gentle shocks to the other person.
As they issued more shocks, they became stronger and they could hear sounds of discomfort.
The sounds of discomfort became screams of pain.
Then agony, then pleading for mercy, then begging to be let out.
Finally an ominous silence.
When the participant asked if he could stop the shocks, the man in the white coat issued one of the following reponses.
“The experiment requires you to continue.”
“It’s essential that you continue.”
“You have no choice but to continue.”
And, despite feeling what they were doing was wrong, 65% of participants carried on issuing shocks, right up to the lethal level.
65% let the man in the white coat overrule their conscience.
Milgram tried the experiment later, with variations.
He found that participants were less likely to blindly follow orders if the man issuing instructions wore street clothes instead of a white coat.
He found they were less likely to follow orders if the location was a seedy downtown office rather than Yale University.
But he found their willingness to administer the lethal dose increased from 65% to 95% when they could simply tell someone else to do it.
Milgram later summed up his findings.
“It was an experiment to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to do so by an authority figure.
Stark authority was pitted against the participants’ moral objections to hurting others, and, with the screams of the victims ringing in their ears, authority won more often than not.
The willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of authority constitutes the chief finding of the study.”
That’s frightening, people refusing to think for themselves, just following orders.
Luckily we’re smarter than that nowadays.
At least, we’d never do that in our job would we?