Dark Side of Obedience

15 May 2005 (Sun)

THE INFAMOUS MILGRAM EXPERIMENT began in July 1961, a year after the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Stanley Milgram, a social psychologist in Yale University then, devised the experiment 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) summed up the experiment in the article “The Perils of Obedience”, writing:

“The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous import, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. 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.”

LEARNT about Milgram’s work during social psychology class last semester. Was quite shocked and intrigued at the same time.

As Dr. K. pointed out, what we believe and how we actually behave can be miles apart. We never know whether we might do something that we would end up feeling ashamed about. It was a stark reminder that we shouldn’t judge others. On the other hand, the fact that 35-odd percent of people chose not to obey cruel commands is encouraging — a testimony to the human spirit, and perhaps the need to follow our “true north” rather than the “authority at hand”.

And a question: Are certain MBTI personality types more likely to obey authority than others? Conversely, are certain types very much less likely to do so?

(See also Milgram Experiment in Wikipedia and The Man Who Shocked the World by Thomas Blass in Psychology Today, Mar/Apr 2002.)

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Posted by J.K. in Problems, Psychology, Research, Social | View Comments |

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