Stanley Milgram

Stanley Milgram

I’ve been thinking a lot about Stanely Milgram, the social psychologist who ran the (in)famous experiments in the early 1960s that looked at people’s willingness to commit acts of cruelty in the name of obedience.

Milgram was trying to figure out why so many Germans stood by or participated in Nazi acts of atrocity. He brought in 100 subjects, all men, and told them they were participating in an experiment that would demonstrate that people learned more quickly when they were punished. Each man was assigned the role of teacher, and he asked a student, whom he could hear but not see, a series of questions. If the student got the question right, the teacher moved onto the next question. If the student got the question wrong, the teacher pulled a lever on an impressive looking machine that zapped the student with an electric shock. Each new wrong answer elicited a stronger shock, all the way up to 450 volts. The subjects screamed and pleaded for release, but the teachers were instructed by men in white lab coats to keep going. (The students were actors and perfectly safe, but the teachers didn’t know that.)

You can watch a video about the Milgram experiments here. For comic relief, note Milgram’s facial hair.

Before the experiments were conducted, everyone involved expected most or all of the teachers to pull out. No normal, moral adult would torture a fellow human being just because some official looking guy told him to, right? In fact, it turned out that only 1.3% of the teachers refused to participate.

The Milgram experiments suggest to me that we humans have an innate—and strong—desire to obey people whom we believe are superior to us. That part of what it means to be human is to want to do what we’re told.

We see this instinct in our closest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, who share 98% of our DNA. If you’re a lowly male chimp and you try to mate with a female in your troupe, or you’re a bonobo and you don’t wait to eat until your alpha females have eaten (bonobos are matriarchal), you’re in for a beating.

I think about this instinct to obey and then I think about the values I try to instill I my kids, and the values they learn at school: be kind, share, be honest, be inclusive, be respectful of others and their different points of view, follow the rules. These values aren’t going to help them recognize when a person in charge is wrong and they’re not going to help them actually stand up and do something about it. They—we—need stronger weapons like determination, self control, and self knowledge. Because it’s not just peer pressure we’re up against, it’s our very nature.

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