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The capacity for obedience

How can ordinary people be nudged into participating in the most horrific acts of violence? An account of an experiment in the 1960s is instructive in our increasingly authoritarian times

Tyranny is not possible without mass obedience. The murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust was carried out not by sadistic monsters but by ordinary humans who were obeying orders. Writing on the trial of Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt coined the memorable phrase, ‘the banality of evil’.

The enabler of such evil is the moral imperative to obey. For the Holocaust to have been averted, the majority of German citizens needed to disobey. But they did not. In the words of Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal, “We know that one doesn’t need to be fanatical, sadistic, or mentally ill to murder millions; that it is enough to be a loyal follower eager to do one’s duty.”

Today, as authoritarian leaders are voted to power in countries around the world, many fear that their ability to command blind loyalty from their followers could erode democratic institutions and practices, with frightening consequences for civil liberties and human rights.

The experiment

This has renewed interest in the psychology of obedience, which is a fascinating subject in itself. The most systematic study of obedience was conducted by the American psychologist Stanley Milgram in 1962-63 at Yale University. His findings, published in a book titled Obedience to Authority in 1974, became a bestseller in its time, and makes for an enlightening read in ours.

Milgram sought to answer a basic question: To what extent would people obey a command that severely conflicts with their conscience, values, and self-image?

The capacity for obedience

The experiment he designed was as simple as it was brilliant. Milgram advertised in the newspaper seeking volunteers for an experiment in learning. From the list of respondents, two people at a time are invited to his lab. One of them is designated a ‘teacher’ and the other a ‘learner’. The ‘experimenter’, clad in a grey lab coat, and representing the authority of science and academia, explains to them that the study is about the effect of punishment on learning.

The learner is taken to a room and strapped to a chair with electrodes attached to his wrist. He is told he has to learn a list of word pairs for a test, and every time he makes an error, he will receive electric shocks of increasing intensity.

The ‘teacher’ is taken to another room and seated facing a shock generator with 30 switches, ranging from 15 volts to 450 volts. He is told that he will administer the test, and also the shocks for the wrong answers, increasing the level each time the learner makes a mistake.

But the ‘teacher’, in Milgram’s words, is a “genuinely naïve subject”. He doesn’t know that the learner is a confederate of Milgram’s who receives no shock at all, and has been instructed to give wrong answers. “The point of the experiment,” Milgram writes, “is to see how far a person will proceed in a concrete and measurable situation in which he is ordered to inflict increasing pain on a protesting victim.”

Shocking results

Milgram’s descriptions of the experiment in his book, his analyses of the subjects’ justifications for their obedience, even the chapter on research methodology, make for a gripping read. Common sense leads us to expect that most individuals would refuse to administer electric shock to anyone, even as part of an experiment. Indeed, one must be a psychopath — not unlike what the world imagined Eichmann to be — to continue administering shocks to a helpless individual even after he starts to protest.

But the results of Milgram’s path-breaking experiment shocked (no pun intended) the American public: 65 per cent, or roughly two-thirds, of the participants continued giving shocks to the maximum level (450 volts). Every single participant continued up to 300 volts. (For the sake of comparison: the household electrical circuit in India is typically at 220 volts).

The disturbing conclusion of Milgram’s experiment was that most people would follow the orders of an authority figure, even if it meant killing an innocent person. With the Eichmann trial still fresh in public memory, Americans bristled at the insinuation that their capacity for a moral response to an authority’s abuse of power was no different from that of Germans under Nazi rule. Interestingly, the same experiment conducted in Germany found an obedience rate of 85 per cent.

Milgram reproduced in his book the transcripts of the verbal exchanges between the experimenter and the ‘teacher’, which chart the transformation of an ordinary clerk or factory worker into a cold-blooded bureaucrat administering death to someone he’d just met. A recent biopic on Milgram, titled Experimenter (2015), starring Peter Sarsgaard (as Milgram) and Winona Ryder, does a splendid job of dramatising the lab experiments.

To be fair, nearly every subject turned to the experimenter for guidance when the learner began to scream in pain. But the ‘experimenter’ would urge the ‘teacher’ to continue, and the latter would comply. The authority — in this case, the experimenter — had no means of enforcing obedience. The participant stood to lose nothing from disobedience — no danger of material loss, and no threat to life, unlike, say, a civilian in the Nazi bureaucracy. And yet most of them obeyed. How does one account for this transformation?

Behavioural modes

Milgram’s explanation was that people operate in two behavioural modes: ‘autonomous’ and ‘agentic’. It is when a person is functioning as an autonomous individual that his conscience kicks into play, dictating behaviour. The moment he enters a social hierarchy — which could be an army or a state bureaucracy or a company management — he sees himself as an agent of another’s will, thereby shifting the (moral) responsibility for his actions to the ‘authority’. This enables him to act in ways that he would not were he to take personal responsibility for his actions.

Milgram drew on evolutionary theory to explain this transformation. A potential for obedience is the prerequisite for social organisation, he noted, “and because organisation has enormous survival value for any species, such a capacity was bred into the organism through the extended co-operation of evolutionary processes.”

He switched to cybernetics (the science of regulation and control) to demonstrate why civilisation depends on it: “What modifications in its design are required if an [automaton] is to move from self-regulation to hierarchical functioning?” Milgram answered: “The most general need in bringing self-regulating automata into a co-ordinated hierarchy is to suppress individual direction and control in favour of control from higher components… the individuals who enter into such hierarchies are, of necessity, modified in their functioning.” We imbibe this ‘modified functioning’ from family and school, which drill into us values such as loyalty, duty, and obedience to authority.

Scope for disobedience

Of course, this does not mean that the scope for disobedience is absent in a hierarchical set-up. In situations where the group pressure to disobey outweighs the imperative to obey, disobedience results. This is something revolutionary leaders have intuitively known, and political activists operate with the understanding that resistance is only possible through collective agency. Hence the popularity of civil disobedience as a tactic to build solidarity and undermine authority.

Milgram’s work needs revisiting if we wish to understand the workings of authoritarianism and whether its worldwide emergence has anything to do with a deep psychological need to be led, for clear answers, for certainty in an era of ambiguity and uncertainty.

His Obedience to Authority is unparalleled as a document of human vulnerability to tyranny, and as an article of faith for humanity’s capacity to resist tyranny.

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Printable version | Feb 21, 2020 10:04:30 PM |

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