In school, I learned about the atrocities that the Nazi’s committed towards the Jews, Slavs, homosexuals, and others they deemed not worthy of living. As I grew older I learned about other genocides, the killings of non-Arabs in Darfur, killings of Muslims and Catholics in Bosnia, and the Ottoman Empire killing Armenian minorities at the turn of the century.
What makes groups of people take orders and be obedient to despotic leaders? How did they ever live with themselves after killing innocent victims? Is obedience naturally inherent?
Stanley Milgram, a famous American social psychologist, tried to understand the dilemma. In his experiment, partially inspired by Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann’s trials, he tried to answer the question, “Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?” (Milgram, 1974)
If you want to read the whole experiment, click here. It’s quite interesting, but summarizing it here with technical terms will bog it down.
The conclusions of the Milgram experiment were:
- Ordinary people are likely to follow orders from an authority figure, even to the extent of killing innocent people.
- People tend to obey others from other people if they see the authority figure as morally right or legally based.
- There are two states of behavior when people are in a social situation: the autonomous state-people direct their own behavior and the agentic state– people allow others to direct their own actions and pass the responsibility for the consequences to the people giving orders.
There have been repeats of the experiment over the years and throughout the world with a variety of results. Recent criticisms and new findings show that Milgram may have manipulated the experiment in order to get the results he wanted. Also, that obedience is not as clear-cut as what originally was thought.
Even though Milgram’s Obedience Experiment does not provide all the answers on why people follow orders, it shows the dangers of mindless obedience.