When obedience to authority goes too far

When obedience to authority goes too far


IT isn’t so much the kind of person a man is, but the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act.”

So wrote Stanley Milgram, a Yale University psychologist who conducted a series of experiments which reverberated around the world in 1961 and continue to offer profoundly sobering lessons to this day.

Milgram placed advertisements in the press, offering US$4.50 to people to participate in an experiment on obedience to authority. Seated at a console with a microphone, the participant was instructed to put questions to a respondent in an adjoining cubicle. If the respondent gave a wrong answer, the participant was instructed to give him an electric shock by flicking a switch.

With each incorrect response, the shock level rose in 15-volt increments from a harmless 30 volts to a lethal 450. The switches were labelled “Slight shock”, “Moderate shock”,  and “Danger: severe shock”.

The final two were simply marked “XXX”.

Unknown to the participants, the respondent was a colleague of Milgram and his screams of pain were feigned.

Milgram predicted that one-tenth of one per cent of participants would flick the final switch. Yet in the US, Europe and Australia, about 65 per cent of participants “killed” the respondent. For the sake of a US$4.50 experiment. Because the man in the white coat insisted that they continue flicking switches, even after they had begun to express misgivings at the pain they believed they were inflicting.

Fifty years have elapsed since Milgram’s experiment. Fifty years have elapsed also since Adolf Eichmann was put on trial for the murder of six million Jews – for being one of the masterminds of the Holocaust. In fact, Milgram’s interest in understanding the behavioural extremes to which a person will go was piqued by Eichmann’s defence: that he, a high-school dropout, had merely followed orders.

Eichmann’s trial generated a phrase which sparked furious debate at the time and has since become part of the lexicon – the banality of evil.

Coined by Hannah Arendt, who reported on the trial for the New Yorker, the expression captured the ordinariness of the hundreds of thousands of people who carried out the grotesque deeds which made the Holocaust possible.

Its alarming import was encapsulated in another controversial experiment, conducted by a former student of Milgram.

Dr Philip Zimbardo, head of the Psychology Department at Stanford University, invited 24 students to take on the roles of prisoners and guards. The “prisoners” were “arrested” by police, finger-printed, strip-searched, photographed and given ill-fitting smocks and chains for their ankles. The “guards” were assigned uniforms, dark glasses and batons.

Within 36 hours, the experiment was out of control. The “prisoners” rioted and the “guards” subdued them with fire-extinguishers. Designed to last two weeks, Zimbardo called it off after six days. The “guards” had become sadistic tormentors of people who, hours ­earlier, had been their classmates.

The lessons from these experiments and subsequent others, which corroborated their findings, are alarming. They point to unwillingness to challenge authority, even if an instruction is perverse. They highlight resistance to step out from the crowd, even when justice cries out for intervention. They underscore the role of the bystander – the necessary ingredient in most untoward incidents. For the law of the bystander says that the greater the number of people witnessing an incident, the lesser the ­likelihood anyone will intervene.

The case of Kitty Genovese, murdered on a wintry night in New York, has become apocryphal. Her attack lasted about 35 minutes and 38 people witnessed it. Yet not one intervened. Not one took personal responsibility.

Clearly, unquestioning obedience is influenced by both external and internal factors – situations, personality, belief systems, temperament. Either way, the repercussions are of abiding concern. They enable genocide to take place. They allow bigotry to be part of our environment. They make it normative for ordinary people, doing their jobs and without harbouring a particular hostility, to engage in behaviour which would be regarded as inhumane by any ­reasonable standard.

Human nature doesn’t really change.

What does alter is information, education and awareness – of the need to challenge authority, step out from the crowd, not be a bystander. With these changed conditions, Milgram’s forecast that only one-tenth of one per cent of participants in his experiment would flick that final switch would be accurate today. Or at least, it should be.

Vic Alhadeff is chief executive officer of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies.

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