Friday, 6 April 2012

Unbearable Lightness of Obeying

I know that what I am going to share is very disturbing aspect of human nature .I wish it were wrong .But it is real and true.If it , like me , results in shaking your faith in human nature, I can only ask for your generosity to forgive me , but should not truth always triumph in the end and be made known? More than forty years have passed since these research findings were published but the findings have been validated time and again .Obedience to authority looks very obvious and innocuous , but it is far more complicated .Why do we obey others?Do we have an innate basis of obedience?Is it mainly the character of a human being to obey or disobey or does it depend on the kind of situation in which a human being finds himself?What happens when a person in authority gives an order which is immoral or against the conscience of the recipient of order?
I am a great admirer of Stanley
Milgram (August 15,1933-December20,1984), who taught social psychology at Yale university and conducted the famous "Milgram Experiments' at Yale University in 1961 and 1962 .He wanted to know to what extent people will obey orders from authority even when they know them to be immoral and painful.Milgram was less than 30 years old when he conducted these experiments and died at the age of 51 years .But in his short life , he revolutionised our understanding of obedience .
Milgram submitted the results of his experiments in the article"Behavioural study of Obedience"published in 1963.Questions were raised about the ethics of his work and there erupted a major controversy about his findings.His experiments were classed as highly unethical as they caused stress to the participants in the study.But others in the psychological community thought that his deception was necessary in proving fault with the human condition .As a result , the APA (American Psychological Association) held up his application of membership for a year.But later on granted him full membership .Dr. Milgram became one of the best known social psychologists of the modern era.
It took him about 11 years to get his book "Obedience to Authority" published, based on the above experiments .This book was translated into many languages.A CBS-TV drama,"The Tenth Level" was a fictionalized version of this work .Dr.
Milgram was awarded the annual social psychology award by the AAAS(American Association for the Advancement of Science).
Milgram was inspired in part by the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichman.His main reason to create the study was to explain the actions of the Nazis in the Holocaust.His model was later also used to explain in 1968 My Lai Massacre in Viet Nam.
It is a soul destroying book .It shakes our faith in human nature .It is very disturbing, depressing and haunting.It is objective , insightful and relevant.The experiments were elegant in simplicity and highly
illuminatingIts conclusions are invariant across different countries and cultures.Results are similar for men and women .Milgram remarked:"With numbing authority, good people were seen to knuckle under the demands of authority and perform actions that were callous and severe."The book has 224 pages and is published by Harper Perennial Modern Classics.Every body should read this book .It is a must read for those who are a part of organisations and bureaucracy .Forty years of research in social science has replicated this study many times with revalidation of the results.
The Experiment:I quote from Wikipedia:"The volunteer subject was given the role of teacher, and the confederate, the role of learner. The participants drew slips of paper to determine their roles, but unknown to the subject, both slips said "teacher", and the actor claimed to have the slip that read "learner", thus guaranteeing that the participant would always be the "teacher". At this point, the "teacher" and "learner" were separated into different rooms where they could communicate but not see each other. The "teacher" was given an electric shock from the electro-shock generator as a sample of the shock that the "learner" would supposedly receive during 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, there were no shocks. 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 people 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. Most continued after being assured 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:

  1. Please continue.
  2. The experiment requires that you continue.
  3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  4. 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 halted. Otherwise, it was halted after the subject had given the maximum 450-volt shock three times in succession."
Milgram conducted a number of such experiments .In these , Experiment 18 was the one in which a peer administers the shocks.In this experiment, 37 out of 40 participants administered the full range of shocks up to 450 volts.This was the highest (92.5%) obedience rate Milgram found in his whole series.In this, the act of administering shocks was given to a peer and the subjects were accessories to the act of shocking the victim.They performed some other acts which though contribute to the final destructive effect, was remote from it in the eyes and mind of the functionary.Any force or event that is placed between the subject and the consequences of shocking the victim , any factor that will create distance between the subject and the victim , will lead to a reduction of strain on the participant and thus lessen disobedience."In modern society , others often stand between us and the final destructive act to which we contribute."They were not psychologically implicated in it to the point where strain arises and disobedience results.This is use of groups in a manner that facilitates submission ."Any competent manager of a destructive bureaucratic system can arrange his personnel so that only the most callous and obtuse are directly involved in violence.The greater part of the personnel can consist of men and women who by virtue of their distance from the actual acts of brutality, will feel little strain in their performance of supportive functions.They will feel doubly absolved from responsibility.First , legitimate authority has given full warrant for their actions .Second, they have not themselves committed brutal physical acts."

To quote
Milgram , perhaps the most fundamental lesson of this study is as follows:"Ordinary people simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.More over 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.A variety of inhibitions against disobeying authority come into play and successfully keep the person in his place."
A number of adjustments in subject's thinking occur that undermine his resolve to break with authority .One such adjustment is to see himself as not
responsible for his own actions..He sees himself as a person not acting in a morally accountable way but as the agent of external authority.
Arendt in her 1963 book Eichman in Jerusalem has given the concept of the 'banality of evil'.Evil is ordinary, not committed by a sadistic monster or a peculiarly aggressive person .The ordinary person who administered shocks to a person in obedience to authority did so out of a sense of obligation or duty , and not from any evil , aggressive tendencies .
It is not that
Milgram did not understand the people who did resist authority despite potential punishment from authority.He wrote in 1964:"And as it turned out, many subjects did indeed , choose to reject the experimenter's comments, providing a powerful affirmation of human ideal".There are always those who rise above the rest.But intrapersonal resources required to disobey, are not available with every body.Human beings differ in moral strengths.The book makes you look at your own hubris.We may feel we are above all reproach but actual conduct may be depressingly cooperative with immoral orders of authority.Book shows how thin the veneer of civilization is and how easily it can be ignored.If 37 out of 40 persons choose to cooperate in complying with the immoral orders of authority , it leaves less than 8% of humans to choose to disobey immoral orders of authority.When it is human nature to obey even immoral orders of authority , is there a need for an apology for obedience?We need super humans to disobey .I do not know what needs to be done to change this dark aspect of human nature, but I know I need to put myself in constant awareness of what late Dr. Milgram has taught us.