Tag Archives: Stanley Milgram

Doing the unthinkable: Obeying Commands to do Evil


Have you ever wondered how a person could participate in a genocide? How was it that the average German citizen either explicitly or implicitly participated in the extermination of millions of Jews? Or consider the more recent genocides in Sudan, Rwanda, and the Congo. If you are honest, you’ve asked this question and have thought, “there’s just no way I would do something like that.”

Or would you? The January issue of the 2009 American Psychologist is devoted to the topic of obedience and the controversial studies by Stanley Milgram. Recall your Psych 101 class and the obedience studies in the 60s where he found that participants would be willing to shock “learners” when they made mistakes despite the learner’s protests. Shocks were administered to the point of the learner becoming non-responsive. Well, no, there wasn’t any real shocks in the study, but participants didn’t know that and agreed to obey the instructor and push buttons for increasing shock levels when the confederate learner made a mistake.

But, we’re more advanced nowadays, right? One of the authors, Jerry Burger (Santa Clara U.) modified Milgram’s study (by eliminating some of the ethical controversies in the study) and found that still obeyed the instructor to apply shocks even when the “learner” cried out and asked for it to stop–EVEN when they saw defiant participants (really, confederates) refuse to obey the instructor.

So, why do we not speak up? Why do we go along with bad ideas? What is it that happens when we know we should not go along with something but do anyway? What happens then to our conscience?

Is the problem the power of the situational factors, as some assume, that make us feel we should obey? Or is it our dislike of being in conflict that causes us to be willing to pass on conflict to another in order to stay free from it?

Consider how you have listened to off-color jokes and said nothing. Consider how you have watched someone do something inappropriate or say something inappropriate to another but decided to say nothing. While we can give ourselves a break due to the surprise and shock factor and time to consider what the best option should be, we have to admit we have times of non-action.      

I saw a recent TV show filmed at a deli where someone behind the counter made fun of individuals trying to order but lacking in English skills. It was all staged so as to see what would those waiting behind do. Would they agree with the ethnic comments? Would they stand up and demand the server stop the offensive language? Would they leave? Many did speak up, but some did not and some even participated in telling those immigrants to go back where they came from.

Fact is, we don’t like suffering and we prefer comfort. But, living in a sinful world means speaking up and taking one on the chin from time to time. Some of us have “hero” fantasies where we imagine us taking the high road, but if we are honest, we are just as likely to freeze up and go along with things we ought not.

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Filed under christian psychology, Christianity, conflicts, Cultural Anthropology, Psychology