Obedience to Malevolent Authority in America

Almost everyone is aware of the remarkably high level of obedience to malevolent authority figures such as the politician, Hitler, and religious cult leaders Jim Jones and David Koresh. Who among us has not thought that those who obeyed such leaders were different from ourselves—we would not have obeyed. Well, let’s take a look at that proposition.

In 1961-62 a young psychologist at Yale University, Stanley Milgram, conducted the first scientific effort to study the willingness to obey malevolent authority in an objective and scientific manner. He conducted a study of approximately 1000 Americans (mostly males from 20 to 50 years old) that raises serious doubt about our moral superiority in regard to our willingness to obey a malevolent authority. Briefly summarized, Milgram set up a behavioral lab at Yale rigged with what appeared to be an electric shock device. The device was to be used in what was advertised as an experiment on memory and learning, but was actually an experiment on obedience to authority. The device was to be used to shock students who gave a wrong answer to questions from the teacher. It was graduated in 15 volt increments ranging up to Extremely Severe and finally XXX—450 volts.

The experimenter invited volunteers in by pairs, one of whom was a trained confederate of the experimenter. The confederate was always selected as the student or learner and the subject of the experiment was the teacher. The teacher received a 45 volt shock so he would know what he was delivering to the learner when the learner gave a wrong answer. The learner actually received no shock, but was trained in responding as though he did. In the beginning he was screened from the teacher’s view but was clearly audible. As the shock level increased his reaction increased to screams and claims of a previous heart problem and eventually silence.

Many of the “teachers” were uncomfortable with their role: some cried or laughed and a few terminated their participation, but more than 50% went all the way with the shock even after the learner fell silent. The teacher frequently consulted the experimenter (the authority figure) with questions such as, “You hear that he says he has a heart problem?” or  “He no longer responds; what shall I do?” The experimenter’s response was along the lines of, “No answer is a wrong answer” or “Your instructions are to proceed.” The experimenter and his associates were surprised at the willingness of the volunteers to submit to malevolent authority.

These experimenters had little of the trappings of authority, except their location at Yale, and no ability to coerce the volunteers. The experiment was moved to another town and into a less than respectable building. The learner was eventually brought out from his screen where the teacher could see as well as hear his student. The teacher eventually was told to force the learners hand onto the machine. Nothing was very effective in slowing the teachers’ willingness to obey.

Alan C. Elms, (see Alan C. Elms Home Page) a member of the experimental team, has written that:

”…two-thirds of average Americans were willing to shock an innocent victim until the poor man was screaming for his life, and to go on shocking him well after he had lapsed into a perhaps unconscious silence, all at the command of a single experimenter with no apparent means of enforcing his orders.”

Why did these average Americans so easily knuckle under to malevolent authority? The answer is opaque and elusive. That it is human nature is not enough. These men were reared during the years when families and society’s institutions were much more authoritarian than they are today. It would be interesting to see if the 20 to 50 year old men of today would obey as readily as those who were born in the 1920s and 30s. Young male children, frightened and overwhelmed by authority figures such as an overbearing father often adapt by “identification with the aggressor”— that is, trying to be like the aggressor. So, in this instance, the teacher identified with the experimenter and carried out his malevolent instructions.

God is, of course, the ultimate model for such aggression by fathers and other authority figures. The Bible is replete with examples of such aggression by God, and He commands us to obey those who have authority over us.  The Bible is replete with accounts of those punished for disobedience. America, the most religious country in the world, makes punishment of the disobedient a major industry.

Our schools enforce obedience and instill a follow the leader mentality—some have children march in line to classes, dress as ordered, etc. In short, obedience is demanded by use, or threat of use, of external force if one does not obey—in preference to being taught values that are internalized. The internalization of values is facilitated when they are based on reality, are honest, make sense and are modeled by a valued person.

The modeling by a valued person can be a two-edged sword, especially when the valued person is malevolent, vindictive or aggressive such as Koresh, Jones or God. The internalization process is what it is regardless of who serves as the model. Fortunately, modeling is not the only factor in the internalization process.

Our military was long ago modeled after the Prussian military—a rigidly authoritarian institution. No one can deny that this has made for an overall effective fighting force, but even in the military there must be room for disobedience when the leadership is malevolent. Witness the need for disobedience in the Abu Graib debacle and the torture at Guantanamo and other sites.

In America our political parties reinforce the obedience mantra. We saw after the infamous 9/11 attack almost total obedience to a leadership that was both incompetent and malevolent. In seven years we saw our constitution assaulted, our privacy violated, torture instituted and practiced, invasion of a country that had nothing to do with the tragic 9/11 event, and hundreds of thousands killed. These events were supported by approximately the same percentage of the population that Milgram found who with numbing regularity were seen to knuckle under to malevolent authority.

What Milgram found startled him and his co-workers. And his findings are no less alarming today. We have been fortunate that we have had no worse example of what can go wrong than we had in the last few years. Will we learn the lessons inherent in the Milgram findings?

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