Would you kill somebody if you were told to by your boss or an authority figure? "Of course not. Are you nuts?" is probably the most common answer to this question. However, this can not be backed up with psychological research carried out in the sixties and seventies.
After Nazi-Germany had collapsed and the world started to realize the unbelievable things that had happened, a lot of sociological and psychological experiments were carried out to understand if, how, and when ordinary people lose their humanity.
Stanford Prison Experiment
The Stanford Prison Experiment is one example worth mentioning.
24 students were randomly assigned as prisoners or guards of a mock prison build in a basement of Stanford University. Both groups quickly adapted to their roles and the guards -- ordinary students -- started to harass prisoners and used physical violence against them. The reactions inside the fake prison were so intense, that the experiment was terminated after 6 out of 14 days planned. In just 36 hours normal and healthy students were transformed into brutal guards on one side, and pathological cases on the other.
The Film The Experiment is based on this experiment and definitely worth watching.
Another series of experiments that investigated the dark side of human nature were carried out by Stanley Milgram from Yale University. He studied obedience and if people would continue to follow orders, even if this would mean to seriously hurt or kill another person.
His experiment was masked as a learning experiment, were the teacher (T) has to punish the learner (L) by applying electric shocks with increasing voltage levels if the learner makes any mistakes (see figure below).
However, the actual subject wasn't the learner, but the teacher (T) who was responsible for administering the electric shocks. The learner was in fact an actor, the screams resulting from the electric shocks were pre-recorded, and the reactions from the learner and the experimenter/supervisor (E) were controlled and pre-defined.
At higher voltage levels the learner started to bang against the wall separating him and the teacher, later he complained about his heart condition and ask the teacher to stop, and eventually all reactions from the learner came to an end.
At some point, usually when the learner demanded to stop the experiment, the subject asked the experimenter if this was admissible. Standardized phrases were used to deny that and requested the experiment to be continued ("Please continue.", "The experiment requires that you continue.", "It is absolutely essential that you continue.", and "You have no other choice, you must go on."), which the subjects usually did.
65% (or 26 out of 40 participants) administered 450V shocks -- the highest level in the experiment and presumably deadly -- and none of the participants refused to administer shocks below the level of 300V.
It's the majority who conform, who comply, who obey authority.Philip ZimbardoMany participants showed increasing signs of stress with increasing voltage levels. They probably felt that this was wrong behavior, however they still obeyed the orders from the supervisor.
As a side note: Even those who eventually resisted to administer shocks only wanted to quit the experiment and they did not questioned the experiment itself.
Later experiments took place in different locations to examine the effect of reputation. And indeed, the greater the locale's respectability, the grater the obedience rate.
I think this is a very interesting topic, although it's hard to realize that the dark side of human nature is far nearer than we hoped to.
Philip Zimbardo -- who conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment wrote the book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil that digs a lot deeper into this topic and also makes links to recent events like the mistreatments in Abu Graib.
Via Daniel and NY Times.
- Milgram experiment on wikipedia.
- Stanford Prison experiment on wikipedia.
- interview with Zimbardo on the Daily Show