Why doing what you're told can be a very bad idea?
How to resist blindly following authority
In the Master Series article on herd mentality, I talked about how the instinct to go with the herd can stop us being our own person. I mentioned the research that shows that a whacking 75% of us will prefer, at least some of the time, to go along with what the group thinks, even if it conflicts with what our own senses tell us. I also related the famous story of the king's new clothes and how easy it is to blindly follow beliefs, emotions and behaviours that a wider group holds without really stopping to decide what you think.
Now I want to look at how, if we're not very careful, we can be manipulated into thinking or doing things we wouldn't normally think or do because of the perceived power of authority.
I am not simply advocating anti-authoritarianism here, and saying that we should never go along with what authority tells us.
We can't all be expert in everything, so there are times when it's wise to seek out an authority to guide us. But blind unquestioning obedience merely because we see the symbols of authority (be that a white coat, a policeman's badge, a reputation) can lead us in to all sorts of potential trouble.
The Milgram experiments
Back in the 1960s Stanley Milgram, a psychologist from Yale University in America, ran a series of now very famous experiments. He wanted to explore just how the rise of Nazi Germany could have happened. The notorious Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann had claimed at his trial that he was "just following orders". Milgram wanted to find out whether average Americans would ever be likely to defer responsibility to a perceived authority by "just following orders". He thought this was unlikely, and the aim of the experiment was to prove his theory.
This is how Milgram set up his experiment: The real subject, who was the man or woman off the street, was given the title 'teacher', and the confederate, an actor who was in on the experiment and knew how it was to run, was to be the so called 'learner'.
The participants drew slips of paper to 'determine' their roles. Unbeknownst to them, both slips said 'teacher'. The confederate claimed to have the slip that read 'learner', thus guaranteeing that the subject would always be the 'teacher'. At this point, the teacher and learner were separated into different rooms. They could communicate but not see each other. In one version of the experiment, the confederate was sure to mention to the subject that he had a heart condition.
The teacher was given a small electric shock from the electro-shock generator as a sample of the shock that the learner would supposedly receive in the course of the experiment.
The teacher was then given a list of word pairs which he was to teach the learner. The teacher began by reading the list of word pairs to the learner. The teacher would then read the first word of each pair and read four possible answers. The learner would press a button to indicate his response. If the answer was incorrect, the teacher would administer a shock to the learner, with the voltage increasing in 15-volt increments for each wrong answer. If correct, the teacher would read the next word pair.
The subjects believed that for each wrong answer, the learner was receiving actual shocks. In reality, no shocks were given. After the confederate was separated from the subject, the confederate set up a tape recorder integrated with the electro-shock generator, which played pre-recorded sounds for each shock level. After a number of voltage level increases, the actor started to bang on the wall that separated him from the subject. After several times banging on the wall and complaining about his heart condition, all responses by the learner would cease.
At this point, many subjects indicated their desire to stop the experiment and check on the learner. Some test subjects paused at 135 volts and began to question the purpose of the experiment. But most people continued after being assured by the experimenter that they would not be held responsible. A few subjects began to laugh nervously or exhibit other signs of extreme stress once they heard the screams of pain coming from the learner.
If at any time the subject indicated his desire to halt the experiment, he was given a succession of verbal prods by the experimenter, in this order:
The experiment requires that you continue.
It is absolutely essential that you continue.
You have no other choice, you must go on.
If the subject still wished to stop after all four successive verbal prods, the experiment was stopped. Otherwise, it was halted after the subject had given the maximum 450-volt shock three times in succession.
So it seemed that, if the conditions were right, average people were prepared to apply possibly lethal levels of electric shock to people they didn't know simply because they were told to do so by a man in a white coat - an 'authority figure'. Stanley Milgram had discovered something very distasteful about human nature.
Nobody thought it would happen
Before conducting the experiment, Milgram polled fourteen Yale University senior-year psychology majors to predict the behaviour of 100 hypothetical 'teachers'. All of the poll respondents believed that only a very small fraction of teachers (up to 3 per cent) would be prepared to inflict the maximum voltage. Milgram also informally polled his own colleagues and found that they, too, believed very few subjects would progress beyond a very strong shock. But in Milgram's very first set of experiments, 65 per cent of participants administered the final massive 450-volt shock.
Milgram summarized the experiment in his 1974 article, "The Perils of Obedience", writing:
"The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous importance, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects' strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects' ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.
Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority." (1)
Variations of this research have been carried out across the world with similar results.
When to question
I said that we sometimes, and even quite often, need to trust so-called experts because we can't possibly all be experts on everything ourselves. It's actually silly to question every little piece of received wisdom because, most of the time, knowledge that has been passed on has been tried and tested.
But there are times when it's definitely wise to question authority - especially if your own or someone else's wellbeing is at stake. Times when you should ask yourself: "Am I going along with this only because I am being influenced by 'authority'?"
And the time to do this is when you get a gut feeling that the source of the perceived authority is trying to get you to do something that just doesn't seem right. Trusting authority may be wise sometimes but blindly trusting authority can be a disaster - as history and the Milgram experiments have shown us.
If someone suggests something that is too good to be true - such as, say: "This drug will have no side effects and is totally non-addictive!" that might be a good time to ask questions. Or if a so-called authority urges you to do something against your moral or ethical code, or that just doesn't seem right, again that's a good time to ask yourself: "Would this make sense to me and would I agree to this if it was my friend or neighbour who suggested this?"
Don't assume you're immune
And one of the surest ways to open ourselves up to manipulation is to assume that we are already immune to it.
Just as most people say they "can think for themselves" and "would never go along with the crowd" but actually most people sometimes do go along with the crowd, so too it's easy to convince ourselves that while we may of course respect authority, we don't blindly respect it. Remember that Milgram himself, and many of his colleagues, took it for granted that most people wouldn't blindly follow authority. And these were 'psychologists', who supposedly have a good understanding of human nature. Blind obedience to authority, and unthinkingly going along with the group, are two psychological mechanisms that go a long way to explain some awful human behaviour, from acts of terrorism right down to schoolyard bullying - in which the 'authority figure' might just be the most dominant child.
But psychological knowledge can protect us and serve to inoculate us against being overly susceptible to manipulation by authority symbols.
I personally believe that this insight into the underpinnings of human behaviour should be taught and discussed in schools. Everybody needs to know about it. Because, as we've seen, we are all too ready to go along with someone who is merely dressed as an 'authority', or has an authoritative manner, title or reputation. And ready, in frighteningly many instances, to go as far as inflicting terrible pain or death on others.
"I was only following orders" should not be an excuse for anyone who has ever heard of Stanley Milgram's famous experiments and really thought about what they mean.
Because ultimately we only have ourselves to answer to.
(1) 'The Perils of Obedience', Stanley Milgram, published in Harper's Magazine, December 1973.
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