Imagine that you’ve agreed to take part in a psychology experiment. A distinguished looking man in a white coat leads you into a room and gets you to sit in front of a piece of equipment with a series of switches on it and a microphone.
Your job is to read the series of questions over the microphone to a subject in another room. If they get a question wrong, you are to flick one of the switches which will administer a shock to them. Each time they get another question wrong you move on to another switch which administers an increasingly more intense shock.
You start the experiment. The test subject gets a few questions right, but eventually gets one wrong. You administer a small shock. The subject then progressively gets more questions wrong and you administer more and more intense shocks, with the subject reacting with louder and louder cries of pain.
You ask if you can stop but the scientist in the white coat tells you that it is vital to continue.
Would you still continue or stop?
What if the subject complains of pains in the chest?
What if the subject suddenly goes silent?
Most of us would probably say that we would stop, however this experiment, the Milgram experiment, has been repeated many times in different parts of the world, and fairly typically 70% of those participating will continue to administer shocks up until the highest voltage setting in spite of the pained cries of the subject or his sudden silence.
The Milgram experiment shows just how susceptible many of us are to being influenced by authority, in this case a man in a white coat. It also goes some way towards explaining how the most terrible atrocities can occur involving seemingly normal people. Consider the Jonestown massacre, the vilification and attempted extermination of Jews in Nazi Germany, the sustained abuse of children by priests, all of which, at least in part, occurred because of a deference to authority.
I call this one of the most profound experiments in psychology, because the moment I read about it, it convinced me of the need to always question any authority, particularly when what they were instructing me to do seemed wrong.
A fuller description of the Milgram experiment can be seen as part of the following episode of Curiosity – How Evil are You? which recently played on the Discovery channel.
A shorter but just as poignant example can be seen in this clip from the BBC
So how do we prevent such deference to authority? Apart from being aware of the human tendency to defer to authority, the last part of the video above reveals how the “heroic response” of one person can lead others to question authority (see the first video from 36.35 minutes onward).
One person can make a difference. A point definitely worth remembering.