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Open Thought: The Milgram Experiments on Obedience to Authority

Milgram wanted to know how far the average person would go.

Whether you’re familiar or not, I suggest they hold a lesson for all of us, and one worth revisiting from time to time.  They demonstrated that people have a strong tendency to comply with authority figures, even when it means violating their own sense of right and wrong.  The studies were conducted by Stanley Milgram in the 1960s in an effort to better understand what occurred in Nazi Germany. Milgram wanted to know how far the average person would go, even if it required inflicting pain on a stranger, simply to follow instructions from a perceived authority.   

Is this tendency toward blind obedience in our nature or the result of conditioning?

Is this tendency toward blind obedience in our nature or the result of conditioning? I would argue that the roots can largely be traced back to childhood, when there is generally a stronger emphasis on teaching obedience than on teaching morality.  This has an enduring impact on our psychology, which is surely related to why most people in the experiments were so uncomfortable saying no to perceived authority, that they transgressed their moral sense and became willing to inflict harm on another.

We all have the ability to question authority and there are moments when it is important to do so. 

When I first learned about these studies, I asked myself, “Would I have been one of the participants that followed orders even when they seemed wrong?” And disturbingly, my honest answer was that I probably would have been.  But the beauty of this thought experiment was I decided at that point that I’d apply the lesson to my own life and strive to NEVER follow orders that contradict my moral compass.

On a spiritual level, we are responsible for our actions, and it doesn’t matter whether we were “just following orders” or not.

We all have the ability to question authority and there are moments when it is important to do so.  This is not meant as any sort of political statement or commentary on a particular issue.  It is simply meant to highlight a common tendency within our psychology with effects ranging from small and insignificant to potentially very dangerous, as seen in Nazi Germany.  On a spiritual level, we are responsible for our actions, and it doesn’t matter whether we were “just following orders” or not.

Of course, much more can be found on the experiments and how they were conducted (which, by the way, was unethical… but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them.)

– Mary Hurst, Hashtag Lewisburg City Paper #129. December 2020.

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