To obey or not to obey? That is the question. And it’s one that’s not easily answered.
Sure, we want obedient citizens, soldiers, subordinates and students.
But there’s a disturbing downside to the tendency to obey that needs to be understood.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the Stanley Milgram experiments on obedience. Perhaps you remember reading about these incredibly important studies from your Psych 101 days.
Dr. Milgram, a mentor of mine, designed studies in which he investigated whether people would obey an authority who told them that they must give incremental shocks to learners who answered incorrectly and “needed to be punished”.
Most of the participants who administered the shocks did not do so casually – particularly when the shocks became increasingly painful.
But when the “authority” insisted that they stick to the rules of the study, 65% of them complied - despite feeling intense turmoil between their instinct to obey and their impulse to be more humane.
In reality, nobody in the study was actually shocked. The “learners” were actors who simulated agonizing pain, begged to be let out of the study, wailed about their weakened heart condition.
Dr. Milgram was not a sadist who enjoyed inflicting pain on others. He was a highly curious and conscientious social psychologist who was intrigued about how easily civilians and local authorities obeyed the Nazis in World War II. He actually believed that with an American population, compliance to authority would be atypical. We fact-find and we learn.
He ran several studies with different population groups. The results: blue collar and white-collar, men and women, students and adults – all had similar rates of obedience. And lest you think that Milgram’s studies are old and therefore irrelevant, let’s review a recent news headlines.
French TV reported a fake reality game show in which 81% of contestants administered more than 20 shocks to others - up to a maximum of 460 volts. Again, the shocks were simulated. Yet, less than 20% of the contestants disobeyed the verbal prodding from the host and audience to keep dishing out the torture, as they were “supposed” to do.
Milgram's studies prove what a potent force authority is. The majority of people will obey an authority, when they would never act the same way on their own. Sometimes the authority is official, such as the army, police, religious leaders - where men and women perform incredible acts of violence against others when told to do so. Other times the authority is more informal, like a mob, a heated political rally, a cyber bully where authority emerges from raging emotions set off with a rant and a rave.
To obey or not to obey? What shall people do in any given situation?
Most often obedience wins out. After all, who wants a chaotic society in which everyone is running around, each doing his own thing, listening to nobody? Yet, obedience should be balanced with independent thought and personal morality.
A few examples in defense of disobedience:.
I wish many a nurse had questioned a doctor’s orders instead of instinctively obeying his mandate. I wish a co-pilot had not silently acquiesced to a senior pilot’s orders when he intuitively felt it was wrong. I wish every sexually abused kid could have disobeyed Father at the first inappropriate gesture that was made.
So, yes, I want an obedient society. And I want obedient kids the same way I want to have my favorite nail polish make me look thin. It’s a fantasy. Reality is much more complex, requiring different behavior from us at different times. Sometimes it's appropriate for us to obey, sometimes to disobey. And it's always admirable if we can summon up the courage to do what we consider the right thing in any given situation.