Uncivil Obedience

Ann L. Davidoff

Delivered on July 31, 2005
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Harford County


When I was about 30 years younger, in the 1970s, a president of the American Psychological Association urged psychologists "to give psychology away." I liked the message then. Now that I'm in my early 60s, and thinking over what I can give the younger generation, I like the message even more. Today I'll be talking about several studies that are well worth giving away.

Stanley Milgram was a social psychologist, at Yale University, at Harvard University, and later at the City University of New York. In the early 1960s he designed and conducted a series of experiments that some consider "the most diabolical psychological studies ever conducted." He was interested in the question: When the commands of an authority clash with moral and humane principles, what do ordinary people do? Milgram, who was Jewish, the son of Eastern European immigrants, was especially curious about why so many Germans had followed the Nazi agenda in the 1930s and 1940s.

If you had been in one of Milgramís early studies, you'd have appeared for your session at Yale University along with a middle aged accountant, apparently a second subject, but in fact the experimenter's accomplice. The authority in charge is a stern looking male biology teacher in a white laboratory coat. He pays you and the other subject $4.50 as promised and begins a brief orientation. Supposedly the study concerns the effects of punishment on learning and memory. One person will teach the other a list of word pairs and punish wrong answers by electric shocks.

You and the accountant draw straws to see who will be teacher and learner. The drawing is rigged to assign you the instructor role. The learner follows the experimenter to another room where he will do his memorizing. You tag along and see the man strapped in a chair "to prevent excessive movements" and you see the electrodes attached to his wrist. Both you and the accountant are told that the shocks may be "extremely painful" but do not cause "permanent tissue damage." The accountant offhandedly mentions that he has a heart condition.

Back in the laboratory, you are given instructions as you sit before a large, impressive looking shock generator. Every time the learner makes a mistake, you will supply the correct response over an intercom and administer a shock beginning with a 15 volt jolt. After every mistake, you are to increase the intensity of the shock by a step, working through 30 steps to 450 volts.

During the course of the study the accountant gives many wrong answers so you find yourself delivering increasingly powerful shocks. In actuality, the learner only appears to be shocked. You and the other subjects hear the same taped vocalizations, poundings, and kickings. After you deliver a 75 volt shock, the accountant groans and moans; at 150 volts, demands for freedom; at 180 volts, cries that the pain is unendurable; kicking; and refusal to continue, at 300 volts; silence after 315 volts. To make the human consequences of your actions more salient, Milgram designated different shock levels descriptively. "Danger Severe shock" marks the 375 volt lever; earlier levers are identified as "strong," "very strong," "intense," and "extreme intensity."

Like most participants, you want to stop. But each time you protest, the experimenter orders "The experiment requires that you continue." When you complain about taking responsibility for the outcome, the experimenter says, "I will take responsibility for what happens."

Forty psychiatrists were asked to estimate the number of people who would follow orders in this situation. They vastly underestimated the number of people who actually followed orders. In the experiment I described, every subject persisted past twenty shocks—past 300 on the shock generator, past groaning and moaning, past demands for freedom, past cries that the pain was unendurable, past kicking and refusing to continue and finally past silence—with approximately 65 percent of participants obeying until every shock had been administered.

It is certainly of value to know that a great many people obey under these conditions. It is also important to go a step further and ask why? Milgram considered many explanations:

Well then, what promotes obedience in these studies? Milgram's preferred explanation was that people simply assumed that legitimate authorities had to be obeyed because of obedience training during childhood; as kids, we have to obey parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, teachers, and other adults. Milgram felt that in his experiments, people became dominated by what he called an administrative rather than a moral outlook. They wanted to please the experimenter; they wanted to be good subjects. So they kept on obeying.

Participants in Milgram's studies drift slowly toward inflicting what they think are dangerous levels of pain. The process is insidious, step by step. The same scenario is powerful in real life and almost certainly contributes to the obedience in Milgram's studies .

Intentions are also important. Nobody in the Milgram studies sets out to hurt anybody. The "teachers" are required by the study to hurt the learner. These conditions may liberate the sense of responsibility because it's easy to blame something other than oneself, especially, the experimenter, the experiment, or the situation.

There are numerous disturbing examples of pressures for broad scale obedience, or its sister action, compliance "at the expense of conscience" in our culture today. The rewards for loyalty are often very substantial: money, sometimes a great deal of it; power, and prestige, most notably. Because a strong conscience tends to increase questions and work against compliance and loyalty, principled people are probably less likely to climb to positions of power in bureaucracies. The top tiers of an organization tend to be peopled, therefore, by very loyal folks who came up by loyalty and value loyalty. Given these facts, it is not surprising that pressures for compliance with policies are strong and widespread throughout most of the institutions of our society.

Let me remind you of coverups and lies by executives at the highest levels at Enron and Arthur Andersen to exemplify how far loyalty drags the leadership of business and corporate groups.

Clergy at the highest levels pressured the church membership to vote for conservatives in the last presidential election. Journalists Kirkpatrick and Goodstein, writing in the New York Times, described an Archbishop Chaput (the highest ranking Roman Catholic prelate in Colorado) and his political activities: Chaput discussed Catholic priorities in the election in 14 of his 28 newspaper columns. His archdiocese organized voter registration drives in more than 40 of the largest parishes in the state, sent voter guides to churches around the state, and staffed committees to help turn out voters. Archbishop Chaput proclaimed that "a vote for a candidate like Mr. Kerry who supports abortion rights or embryonic stem cell research would be a sin that must be confessed before receiving Communion." One of Chaput's henchmen acknowledged that parishioners sometimes accused him of telling them how to vote. "We're not telling them how to vote," he responded. "We are telling them how to take communion in good conscience."

A few examples of pressures for obedience in government agencies:

Examples like these are very common. But, itís time to move on to a related topic.

In the Milgram studies, only 10% of participants obeyed the experimenter if they witnessed someone else defy orders. I am interested in this hard core 10%. Many—if not most—of them are likely to have held right wing authoritarian attitudes. This is where the little test I distributed in the order of service comes in (RWA Scale). People who say they agree with these items and others are considered highly authoritarian. RWA stands for right wing authoritarianism. (The author of the test believes there is no such thing as left wing authoritarianism.)

You need to know that there is a lot of controversy about this research. The original work was done at the University of California following World War II and carried forward by a prize-winning Canadian psychologist, Robert Altemeyer in the 1990s and more recently. This research takes on added importance because many contemporary observers believe that the bitter divisions in our country—embodied in the last presidential election—reflect the growth of right-wing authoritarian attitudes in many Americans. And not the rise of moral values.

Let me describe some of the most basic right wing authoritarian attitudes. Although these attitudes were identified to characterize the outlooks that made people receptive to fascism in the 1940s and 1950s, as you will see, the same set of attitudes brilliantly characterize the far Christian right and the current administration.

What can we do about authoritarianism? Change may be tough once people have become adults. Three categories of interventions may be helpful—especially for children.

  1. First, publicize the results of the Milgram studies. People are better able to resist pressure when they understand how easy it is to comply when strongly pressured.
  2. Second, deliberately cultivate empathy, hammering away at what it feels like to be in somebody else's shoes, and fostering respect for diversity. As a therapist, for example, I have asked parents of children lacking empathy and interpersonal sensitivity to play empathy games; for example, to challenge the insensitive child to say aloud how they think mommy or daddy or Bobby or Becky feels after such and such and how they would feel if such and such happened to them.
  3. Third, teach people to analyze, to problem solve, to consider complexities, to respect reason and critical thinking, to demand facts, to insist on proof, and to question simple conclusions on complex topics. It must also be stressed that critical analysis is truly patriotic because it will lead to improvements and thereby make our democracy better and stronger. Each of us may be able to do a little something to foster critical thinking. Again, as a therapist, I recommend to parents of difficult children that they teach problem solving, beginning at an early age. Limits must absolutely be set unilaterally. But children can often help out with problem solving. For example, if Suzy has been hitting her baby brother or talking disrespectfully to grandma or neglecting the curfew, I'd have the parent pose the problem to Suzy to see if she can suggest a plausible solution. If I, as the parent, find Suzy's strategy objectionable or I want to amend it, I would present my ideas and negotiate to figure out something we can both live with. I also suggest weekly family meetings to talk about problems that arise in the family, to generate possible options, and evaluate the better ones. The more practice children get in thinking for themselves, the more likely they'll be able to think critically as adults.

Let's end with Edward Everett Hale's often quoted comment:

I am only one. But still I am one. I cannot do everything. But still I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.

Copyright © 2005 Ann L. Davidoff. All Rights Reserved.


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