One cannot imagine inflicting pain on innocent people. However, empirical evidence shows that we have the tendency to let authority define our actions, however destructive they may be. This has implications for society, particularly one like ours. Knowing why that happens and what to do about it can help minimise such regrettable mistakes.
In 1961, at Yale University, Stanley Milgram began an experiment that changed the outlook of modern psychology. The experiment involved three individuals who played three roles – the experimenter, the teacher and the learner. The teacher was supposed to teach some words to the learner. On each incorrect answer the learner would receive an electrical shock which would increase by 15 volts on each subsequent wrong answer. The teacher also received a real electrical shock before the experiment began to experience the pain the learner would feel.
Although teachers believed that real electrical shocks were being given, in reality no real electrical shocks were involved. Instead pre-recorded sounds were played and the learners acted as if they were in real pain. Both the learner and the experimenter knew that no real electrical shocks were involved. Milgram himself played the role of the experimenter (with the authority to run the experiment).
When the experiment ran, some teachers did question the motives of the experiment. However, most of them continued when they were assured they would not be held responsible. Furthermore, when some of the teachers wanted to stop they were told by the experimenter authoritatively that they should continue. But after four verbal prods if the teacher still wanted to stop, the experiment would then stop.
The results were shocking because round 65 percent of the participants issued the maximum shock of 450-volts to the learners while interestingly all participants continued giving shocks of 300 volts. Subjects of the experiment showed signs of tension and stress but they continued inflicting pain on otherwise innocent individuals. It was evident that people, being obedient to authority, inflicted pain and even increased it manifold on the insistence of the one with authority.
In our society too, we see people inflicting pain on others (and increasing the pain) at the behest of an unjust authority; in our schools, hospitals, police stations, mobs protesting or taking justice in their hands, companies, violent groups and state-run institutions.
One example would be the way the police deal with citizens. Provincial governments (the experimenters) may engage forces for their own protection or they may order police forces (the teachers) to ensure they do not serve a particular portion of society (the learner) for some reason or serve them in a way that favours their interests.
Simply imagine an innocent citizen in need of timely justice who is denied access to investigation by the police, and even if the police want to help they are reprimanded by their seniors to follow arbitrary orders. Unfortunately, it seems that the public is the poor learner in all cases.
The experiment’s reality is best explained through the way politics work here. Is it not odd that no one in our political parties strongly comes forward and questions the leadership? Further, it seems that the political party heads are the experimenters whereas the role of the teacher is being played by the politicians reporting to those leaders – and, yet again, the citizens are the poor learners. This also explains why people at the policy level are ready and willing to inflict pain, and continuously increase it, on fellow citizens.
Put in another way, Milgram’s experiment explains why political party heads ask politicians to follow commands and then, in turn, those politicians, even those with Ivy League credentials, follow them blindly.
It is evident that we possess this powerful tendency to obey painful orders and not question decisions issued by an arbitrary authority. Can we not change our behaviour and be able to stand up against unjust authority? Learning from Milgram’s experiment we can take preventive actions to question an unjust authority.
First, we should question the legitimacy of the authority. Second, we should ask ourselves if we should really do something even if a legitimate authority has asked us to do it. Third, we should not comply with commands that make us uncomfortable to begin with. Because the more we do destructive acts the more difficult it becomes to distance ourselves from the authority figure.
Finally, if somehow we land ourselves in a group that is supposed to carry out immoral actions and we cannot get out then as a last resort we should find an ally in the group.
Understanding this phenomenon can equip us to stand up for what is right and correct ourselves when we find ourselves facing an unjust authority.
This opinion was published in The News on 15th October, 2016.