I Was Just Following Orders: The Excuse of the Other Guy

Looking back in history we might think about certain time periods and wonder how the everyday person in that country or in that situation went along with genocide, other atrocities such as the forced sterilizations in the US that we’ve just heard about in the news or just plain old bad plans.  How did they find so many people to go along with them?  Can the people who followed those orders or just sat back and let those things happen possibly be like your friends and neighbors?  Of course not.  You’ve had conversations with the people you know and they are kind people who look out for others.

And we know that if we were put to the test in a situation like that we would follow our own internal guidance.  It wouldn’t be possible to convince us to hurt others.  We’re just not that kind of person.

A Yale University professor decided to find out exactly how many people would follow along and do the wrong thing.  Professor Stanley Milgram decided to do a study in 1961 to see what percentage of people would follow an authority figure’s directions even when it went against their own internal values.

The short version of the experiment was this:  The Subject was told that a “student” was in another room and would be answering questions via microphone.  The Subject was to give the “student” an electric shock every time a wrong answer was given.  Each shock given would be 15 volts higher than the last.

Before doing the study, Milgram polled some of his students and colleagues at Yale to find out what percentage of people they thought would do as the authority figure told them and deliver what they thought would be the final 450 volt shock.  The average guess was that 1.2% of the Subjects would do so.

During the study, the Subject was given the idea that the “student” was asking them to stop, begging them to stop and banging on the wall.  At some point during the experiment every Subject asked to stop the experiment.  They were then told that they would not be held responsible and that they had to continue.  And so they did.  In the end, 65% of the participants in the study administered every shock up to and including the highest possible.  Because the authority figure told them to.

The following is in his own words from “The Perils of Obedience,” 1971.  “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’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] 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.”

Stanford professor Philip Zimbardo adds that of the 35% who did stop the experiment, not one went to check out the health of the “victim” without asking permission to leave and do so.

The study has been repeated numerous times by Milgram and by various others – with the same results found in the majority of western countries.

So what about you?  Based on these statistics, you think you wouldn’t do it.  And based on these statistics, you would.


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