How far does our obedience go?

In many roles, as a student, citizen, or participant in an experiment, a certain obedience is expected of us. But how obedient are we actually, and is it always desirable?

This post is also available in Dutch.

Obedience (adhering to explicit instructions of an authority figure) is a difficult concept. Although it is considered normal and even expected in many contexts, it does have a connotation. In a classroom, obedience is usually a desirable quality, but if your boss at work asks you to do something fraudulent, it is instead problematic. The consequences and our evaluation of obedience are thus very context-dependent.

Social psychologists have therefore been focusing on the following question for quite a while: How obedient are people and how far will we go as a consequence of this obedience?

A controversial classic: Milgram’s obedience experiment

Shortly after the Second World War, there was a strong interest in obedience. People were wondering how the Holocaust could have happened, carried out in large part by seemingly very normal people (see for instance Hannah Arendt’s ‘The Banality of Evil’). Was the Holocaust the consequence of simply following orders? From this question, a very controversial behavioral experiment arose, which is now seen as one of the classics of experimental psychology.

Stanley Milgram performed a series of experiments to see how far participants would go in hurting others if they were instructed by an authority figure. He did this by using three people: the participant, the researcher and a second participant in a separate room, who was in fact a colleague researcher. The real participant had to ask the (fake) other participant questions via a microphone and speaker and give them an electric shock for each wrong answer. With each subsequent wrong answer, the shock intensity became higher. When the fake participant protested, researcher would just say that “it is important for the experiment to continue”. In reality, no electrical shocks were given, but the fake participant pretended to be in pain or even lose consciousness. Almost all participants complied with the request of the researcher to, “in the interest of the experiment”, give another person shocks, sometimes even with what they believed to be lethal intensity.

Based on this experiment, it was concluded that people can do horrible things out of obedience (see, for instance, also the Stanford Prison experiment). There is, however, a “but”…

Does Milgram’s study say something about obedience?

Besides the ethical objections to Milgram’s experiment, there are strong indications that the study was not performed reliably. First of all, it cannot be excluded that the participants obeyed only because they thought it was expected of them and that they did not actually believe they were giving someone electrical shocks. Secondly, Milgram did not perform one but rather 23(!) experiments and only reported on the most successful one. Thirdly, it later became clear that the majority of the participants actually did not obey when they thought that the fake-participant was actually receiving shocks. In other words, they were not that obedient. Fourthly and lastly, retrospective analyses and replication studies show that strong orders to continue the experiment actually led to more resistance by the participants. So, a strong order did not lead to more obedience. But what does this mean?

An alternative explanation for the obedience Milgram found is that his participants really wanted to help the researcher. It seems that participants who identified with the researcher were more likely to obey, and participants who identified with the fake participants refused or protested. Going along with the orders of the researcher could also be explained by the fact that the participants knew it was an experiment and not a real-life situation.

Obedience outside of the lab

It looks like we are not as obedient as Milgram’s experiment seemed to show: We do not follow orders that are groundless and we keep the context in mind. But if that is the case, how can we explain the horror of the Holocaust? That was, after all, the reason for doing such experiments.

One of the lessons from Milgram’s study is that obedience is partly determined by who you identify with. This finding could possibly give some insight into why Nazis dehumanized their victims. Jews (and others) were depicted as animals. By systematically labelling them, giving them a uniform and cutting off their hair, their personal identity was taken away. This decreased the chances of somebody identifying with them (and therefore of refusing orders).

Additionally, we saw that in Milgram’s experiment it mattered much whether the participant actually believed that someone was electrocuted (by their doing). Something similar could have happened during the Holocaust. Possibly a part of the population could simply not believe that it was possible that such horrible things were happening at the Nazi concentration and extermination camps. However, there have been reports that ordinary citizens had access to information about many of the Holocaust horrors, so it is hard to draw any conclusions.

However, we should not forget that there was protest: Think about the resistance, revolts, people that offered shelter, and other forms of counter-movements. These acts show that people, even in extreme and terrible circumstances, can resist authority. And although there has been a lot of research into obedience after Milgram’s experiments, this human characteristic cannot be easily captured in a lab-experiment.

Original language: Dutch

Author: Felix Klaassen
Buddy: Floortje Bouwkamp
Editor: Wessel Hieselaar
Translator: Jill Naaijen
Editor translation: Rebecca Calcott

Featured image retrieved from Pixabay via Pexels

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