“I was only following orders,” he pleaded. “I wasn’t involved in the killings. It was a minor role.”
The above dialogue was the defense given by Adolf Eichmann, Nazi SS lieutenant colonel, for his actions during the Holocaust
After being captured by Mossad agents in 1960, Eichmann was eventually tried in Jerusalem a year later for his war crimes.
Deportation, enslavement, starvation, transportation, and the killing of millions of Jews were just a few of the charges the SS lieutenant colonel was accused of.
In the end, he was found guilty, and sentenced to death. He was hanged at midnight, May 31, 1962.
Eichmann’s story would result in an experiment that tested the power of authority. A scientist, examining his defense, would ask the question of whether it was really possible to merely be “following orders.” Are we all just accomplices, victims of overbearing authority figures?
Authority’s Power of Persuasion: The Milgram Experiment
“The social psychology of this century reveals a major lesson: often it is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act.” –Stanley Milgram, 1974
The Experiment: Stanley Milgram started his experiments in 1961. His aim was to determine if what Eichmann claimed was true. He posed the question: “Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders?” He tested this idea with a simple setup: gather test subjects and have them to apply electrical shocks to someone, pushing them to up the electrical shock more and more.
The experiment consisted of three positions; an overseer, the “teacher” (a volunteer), and an associate pretending to be the “learner”. The process was rigged so that the volunteer would always receive the “teacher” position and the associate always received the “learner” position.
Both the teacher and learner were able to communicate with each other, but could not see each other. The overseer was always next to the teacher (i.e. the volunteer).
The teacher was instructed to read off a list of word pairs to the learner. The teacher would then read the word again with four possible answers. If the learner didn’t get the word pair right, the teacher would apply an electrical shock. Every time the learner got a word pair wrong, the teacher would be instructed by the overseer to up the shock, eventually getting to the highest level.
What the teacher didn’t know was that the learner wasn’t hooked up to the machine. Every time a shock was administered, the learner would play a recording of him screaming in pain. As the shock level was raised, the recording got louder. Eventually, the learner would start begging to be let out. He would claim he was in severe pain, and had a history of heart problems. After several times of this he would remain silent.
Throughout the experiment, the overseer would remind the teacher that the electrical shocks would hurt, but weren’t life threatening.
If the volunteer stopped or asked to check on the learner, the overseer would reassure him that the test subject was ok, and that the volunteer wouldn’t be held responsible if anything happened. If the volunteer desired to end the experiment, the overseer would issue a series of verbal prods in this order…
- Please continue.
- The experiment requires that you continue.
- It is absolutely essential that you continue.
- You have no other choice, you must go on.
If the volunteer still wished to end the experiment after four consecutive verbal prods, the experiment would end. Otherwise, the experiment would end once the volunteer gave the learner three maximum 450-volt shocks in a row
The Results: Before conducting his experiment, Stanley polled a group of 100 Yale University students asking them how many participants would deliver the maximum shock. The students predicted that only 3 out of 100 participants would deliver the maximum shock.
It was found that 65% (26 out 40) of participants delivered the maximum shock.
Many of the volunteers who delivered the 450-volt shock became angry, agitated, and distraught, but still administered the shock. Other signs of tension and stress were evident (nervous laughter fits being one of them).
What to Get From it: The combination of the physical presence of the overseer in a white lab coat next to the teacher, and the teacher’s assumption of the overseer’s credentials highlighted the psychological power authority has over us.
By being connected with a respected institution (Yale University), the volunteer assumed the experiment was safe. The constant rebuttal of the overseer that the experiment was safe and not life threatening reinforced that.
Ultimately, combining a physically present authority figure with trusted sources and an assertive attitude led to higher rates of compliance.
The Majority’s Power Over Us All: The Asch Conformity Experiments
The Experiment: In 1951, Solomon Asch directed the first of his conformity experiments at Swarthmore College. The experiment consisted of eight male college students, all but one of them being associates (i.e. actors). These students would be lined up, with the volunteer being the last in line. Each one would then be presented with two cards, one with a single line on it, and the other with three lines labeled “A,” “B,” and “C.” One of the lines on the second card was the exact length as the first card (the rest of the line were shorter or longer).
One after another, each student would say out loud which line on the second card matched the length on the first one. The corroborators were instructed before the test to unanimously give the correct answer during some trials, and the wrong answer on others.
There were 18 trials total. On the first two, the corroborators would give the right answer. On the third trial, they gave the wrong answer. They would give the wrong answer on 11 out of the 15 remaining trials.
The goal was to see how many times the volunteer conformed to the corroborators’ choices.
The Results: For the control group (consisting of only the volunteer and the overseer), the error rate was below 1%. For the experiment group (consisting of the corroborators, volunteer, & overseer), the majority of the responses were correct (63%), with 36% of the responses conforming to the wrong answer. One third of all volunteer responses were incorrect, usually matching the incorrect answers of the majority group (i.e. corroborators). 5% of volunteers were always swayed by the majority opinion. 25% consistently defied the majority.
Asch interviewed the volunteers afterward, shedding light on their reasoning for conforming to or defying the majority. Subjects who conformed expressed low levels of confidence, desire to fit in, and lack of awareness that the majority chose the wrong answer.
Volunteers who defied the majority exhibited higher levels of confidence. Some were also indifferent to the fact that the majority had chosen the wrong answer. Others questioned their judgment but stuck with their decision. (For more on the Asch experiment, go here)
What to Get From it: The power of majority thinking creates a strong desire in many people to fit in. It’s basic peer pressure. No one wants to be the only one who’s different.
The Asch experiment also highlights the level of importance we put on other people’s decisions to inform our own choices. The idea that, if the majority agrees on A over B, then A must be correct, is a completely illogical (not to mention, bordering on mob rule). “Not everyone can be wrong at the same time?” Right?
In the end, the desire to conform is undeniably strong.
The Danger of Unchallenged Authority
I remember the first time I heard about the Milgram experiment.
I was in a History of the Western world class, discussing the holocaust. After watching a disturbing holocaust documentary, the professor played a video recording of the Milgram experiment.
The video was a compilation of several subjects and their reactions in the experiment.
It was disturbing to say the least.
Once the subject got to the higher electrical shock levels was when the reality of how dangerous an unchallenged authority hit me.
Some of the “teachers” would exhibit different reactions when told to electrocute the “learners.” One stood up in defiance only to sit back down after being reassured by the assertive overseer. A few of them looking like they were in physical pain. The dilemma of whether to administer the maximum shock being too stressful for them.
They eventually did administer it. Their face giving away the realization that what they were doing was wrong but that their ability to refuse had melted away under the overseer’s authority.
Some pleaded to stop as if they were negotiating for their life. They too capitulated into giving the maximum voltage.
One or two flat out walked out.
But the rest were a depressing sight to watch. Burdened by the stress, but unable to mentally resist the authority.
This exhibits the danger of an unchallenged authority, whether that authority be an individual or a majority of individuals.
Conclusion: Avoiding the Results of Milgram & Asch In Your Life
Politics is inundated with the persuasive power of authority.
Politicians, pundits, and the masses of voters all exert this persuasion to the benefit of their own agenda.
And sometimes, we give into it willingly.
We like being on the side of the majority. We like aligning with our favorite media personality. We like being part of that cliché.
But our decisions shouldn’t be made by what authority dictates. Decisions should be made with facts and principles.
Who cares what Reagan or Rand Paul support or condemn? They’re not guide posts.
No one is 100% right, and that goes for your authority figures especially.
An unquestioned authority is a catastrophe waiting to happen, as Stanley Milgram points out in his 1974 book, Obedience to Authority…
“Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”
So what do you think about the Milgram & Asch experiments? Do they paint a convincing picture of the danger of unchallenged authority? Join the conversation in the comments below.