The Psychology of Obedience: Are We in a Gigantic Milgram Experiment?

A history of war and psychology provides lessons on obedience which we can’t hide from forever.

The western world is on a worrying trajectory – and frankly, I’m worried if you disagree.

It is human nature, to a point, to apply the precautionary principle when faced with a crisis. Mitigate the immediate risks. Get to grips with the magnitude of the problem. Above all, take precautions to protect ourselves.

This principle is perfectly rational in a novel crisis or when we apply it with a full understanding of the risks and benefits. The problem, however, is that history shows us that under certain conditions it can be disastrous.

Yes, our human nature can be used against us. The psychology of fear can be used to distract, divide and demoralize. It can be weaponized by the powerful to drive mass conformance – even with the patently absurd.

But before we get to how these problems are surfacing today, it’s worth reminding ourselves of how they have surfaced both in a controlled academic environment and more importantly, in our tragic history. These are serious matters that deserve serious reflection as we look out to the road ahead, no matter your perspective on current events.

The Milgram Experiment

The year was 1961. The trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann had started in Jerusalem just three months earlier. At this point, the full extent of Nazi atrocities were already set out in all their horror. The world was horrified.

But a deeper question permeated through the grief and the disgust. How was it possible that a population could not only stay silent as atrocities were committed, but could actively support them?

Stanley Milgram, a Yale University psychologist, had designed an experiment which he thought might begin to explain.

Three individuals took part in each session of the experiment: an experimenter, a teacher and a learner.

The teacher and the learner arrived at each session together. The experimenter told them that he was studying the effect of punishment on an individual’s ability to memorize and learn.

They both drew slips of paper to determine their roles, either as teacher or learner. Dressed in a lab coat, the experimenter then led the teacher and the learner to a room, in which the learner was strapped to an electric chair.

“This is just to ensure that the learner cannot escape,” said the experimenter calmly to the teacher.

To experience firsthand how the learner would feel, the teacher was given a sample electric shock. They were then led to an adjacent room, from which they could communicate with the learner but could not see one another.

The format of the memory test was simple. First, the teacher taught the learner a list of word pairs to memorise. Then to test the learner’s memory, the teacher read the first word of the pair and read four possible answers for the second word. The learner had to press a button to indicate their chosen answer.

Here’s where it gets brutal. For every incorrect answer, the teacher was asked to administer an electric shock to the learner. Worse, for each further incorrect answer, the teacher had to increase the voltage of the electric shock by another 15 volts. The volts ranged from 15 to 450 (labelled with descriptions like “Slight Shock” and “Danger: Severe Shock”).

As each electric shock was delivered, the howls of pain would get worse from the learner in the other room. If the teacher asked to stop, the experimenter would simply say things like “please continue” and “the experiment requires that you continue”.

Once the highest levels of electric shock were reached, the howls of pain from the learner would stop. Nothing. Simply shocks delivered without a response from the other room.

In the first version of this experiment, a remarkable 65 percent of the participants delivered the electric shocks through to the highest voltage option (26 out of 40 participants). The experiment has been repeated in numerous formats and has produced similar results.

Thankfully, as you might have guessed by now, the learner was an actor. They did not receive any real electric shocks.

The Psychology of Obedience

So why wouldn’t participants just walk out of the experiment room? Why wouldn’t they say “enough!”?

Milgram pointed to two theoretical explanations. The first is conformism. When a group or individual becomes an individual’s reference point, they tend to anchor their perspective to that group. The Asch conformity experiment is perhaps the most famous example from psychology studies. Here, a majority of participants convinced themselves that an obviously longer line was shorter than others, simply because the rest of their group (actors) said so.

Conformism is particularly potent in crises, where we tend to defer to those whom we interpret to have a higher level of expertise. Think about that lab coat and the aura of authority. The lab coat and context deliberately created the illusion that the experimenter knew best, no matter the lunacy of his instruction. “I am merely following the instructions of someone who knows more than me.”

The second theoretical explanation is known as the agentic state theory. This is the view that a person can come to view themselves as an instrument for carrying out someone else’s actions. It’s a kind of mechanism for exonerating oneself from responsibility. “I am merely executing the instructions on behalf of the experimenter.”

An alternative explanation put forward by others is belief perseverance. We are wired to believe that a seemingly well-meaning authority figure can only have well-meaning intentions. We persevere with this perspective even when it becomes glaringly obvious that their intentions are more sinister. Sounds absurd, doesn’t it? But it happens.

“I’d Be an Outlier”

Of course, when asked what we would do, everybody says they’d walk out and refuse to continue. We all think we are morally robust. That’s until an expert or crisis convinces us otherwise.

As Mike Tyson once said, “Everybody has a plan until they’re punched in the face.”

Everybody likes to believe they would have helped Anne Frank. Everybody likes to believe they wouldn’t have turned on their neighbour because they believed in something else. Everybody likes to believe they wouldn’t inflict pain and misery on someone else just because an authority figure told them to.

But history and psychology tell us a different story. History and psychology tell us that authority, crises and fear are potent tools of psychological manipulation and control – even more so when used in combination.

Look Behind You

Today’s events have many worrying parallels with the Milgram experiment. The western world is at a strange crossroads. Authorities are stoking senseless division between groups labelled as “vaccinated” and “unvaccinated”. As one group becomes the illogical scapegoat, anger will grow, led by figures of alleged authority.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Not everyone stayed in the electric shock room in the Milgram experiment. Many walked out immediately. And many more walked out after seeing enough.

Whatever your perspective, these fundamental psychological principles warrant a pause, a deep breath and some reflection. Ask yourself whether psychological tools of fear are being put to deliberate use by authorities – and ask yourself why.

Above all, look behind you. A history of war and psychology provides lessons we can’t hide from forever.

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