Our destructive obedience


Four hundred and fifty volts probably does not sound all that impressive. A taser can deliver as much as 50,000 volts and electric fences anywhere from 2,000 to 10,000. An electric eel only zaps you at around 600 volts, but it’s enough to kill you. It is very unlikely that it will, but it can.

How willing are you to attack someone you don’t know with an electric eel?

In 1961 American social psychologist Stanley Milgram designed an experiment to test the willingness of the average man to obey orders issued by an authority figure. Milgram was at Yale at the time and the advertisement to recruit volunteers mentioned the university in the first line. What could be dodgy? It was happening at Yale.

The volunteers were all men between 20 and 50. They could be blue-collar or businessmen and anything in between. For their time – an hour of it for the experiment – they were given US$4 (plus 50 cents for a taxi).

Every first-year psychology student knows what happens next. This is for the rest of us.

The men were introduced to another alleged volunteer. They were told the experiment was to try to understand the effect of punishment on learning. One man would be the learner and the other the teacher. The teacher (who was always the volunteer) would read word pairs and the learner had to remember them.

The learner was then attached to a piece of equipment that delivered electric shocks. Every time he got a question wrong, he was zapped. Every time he got a question wrong, the shock was increased, starting at 15 volts and maxing out at 450.

What could go wrong? The person giving the instructions was a researcher, a man of science. By the power vested in him by the lab coat he had the authority to undertake the experiment and he accepted responsibility for everything.

The results of Milgram’s shocking experiment (that pun is always intended in the literature; I am obliged to use it) alarmed and horrified the psych world.

As “learners” gave more incorrect answers, the “teachers” were made to issue higher and higher shocks. At some point the learner might say he was in pain, his heart was bad, he wanted to get out.

At around the 300-volt mark, the learner fell silent.

Is he ok? Has he had a heart attack? Is he even alive? The teachers were concerned.

Still, that didn’t stop 65 per cent of them from being able to push the shock machine all the way to 450 volts.

This does not tell us how you make a Hitler (or an Adolf Eichmann whose trial for war crimes was going on at the time).

It tells us how the mob that forms behind him is created.

While Milgram’s experiment has not been precisely replicated because some ethics people got involved along the way, many versions have been conducted – including some very clever attempts to get as close to the original as possible.

And over the decades since, the results remain similar.

The teacher-men in the original experiment were not sadistic or Nazis. Many were worried about the screaming man who couldn’t remember the word pairs. Some wanted to check in. Some simply refused to go on because they didn’t want to hurt the learner. Or kill him.

They didn’t know that the learner was perfectly fine and the shouts and protests were pre-recorded.

Destructive obedience won then, and it still wins.

That gets really dark, really fast. What will we do if the right person says we must? In the darkness we have zealotry, bigotry, despotism, and very stupid people with power.

But, underwhelmingly, destructive obedience also dwells in the everyday complicity most of us accept as necessary to move through the world.

The recent dress code change in Tobago has rightly come in for a lot of praise. But look at how long we seemed content to allow such rules to govern us, as though they were inscribed on tablets of stone by a higher power.

When we do not question or challenge, we start to forget we have the right to do so. We are collectively short-memoried. We forget the wrongs of those in power so quickly that they are allowed to repeat their ills and evils.

Those who are supposed to protect us often hold open the door for those who would harm us – in political spaces, private organisations and at home.

As children, achieving obedience was close to saintliness. I’m not sure how or when we were supposed to learn to question our parents, teachers, leaders, elders and those in authority.

Remember to talk to your doctor or therapist if you want to know more about what you read here. In many cases, there’s no single solution or diagnosis to a mental health concern. Many people suffer from more than one condition.


"Our destructive obedience"

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