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Society’s Tendency to Pass on Responsibility

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The Obedience to Authority Experiment of Stanley Milgram is one of the most studied experiments in American history due to its wide-ranging social implications. The study gained popular attention because it aimed to provide some insight as to why the Holocaust had escalated in such a way. The study was designed around testing the degree of inflicted pain strangers would give to others, under orders by an experimenter. Not only did the study defy what others predict would happen, but it clearly unmasked the immorality of human judgment under the obedience of a fellow partner. In Milgram’s follow-up paper titled, “The Perils of Obedience”, he outlined the results, which point to the fact that relatively few people have the mental resources needed to resist authority. This paper will outline the setup of the experiment and follow up with the results and finally the social implications of such a study. The experiment, which began in 1961, was designed in order to provide justifications as to why there were so many accomplices in the events of the Holocaust.

Less than a year after the trial of a famous Nazi war criminal (Eichmann), finding out the main social driver behind the Holocaust was of importance in the world agenda. Milgram (1974) wrote in “The Perils of Obedience”, “[C]ould it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?” Milgram (1963) wanted to investigate whether ordinary Germans were particularly obedient to authority figures as this was a common explanation for the Nazi killings in World War II. The study was designed in a way to see to what extent ordinary people can be turned to commit atrocities through obedience. The study setup involved using a participant acting as a teacher, the experimenter and a confederate “learner” who was introduced as an ordinary man to the participant. The study worked by having a participant (the teacher) administer increasing levels of shocks to a learner (who was actually acting the pain) whenever he would mistake a phrase the participant attempted to teach.

The experimenter effectively urged the participant to continue shocking the “learner” despite the learner crying for it to stop. The experimenter used a series of prompts, such as, “It is absolutely essential that you continue”, in order to entice the participant to continue. The setup of the study came under criticism that the participants may become psychologically broken because of “inflicted insight”, which is when a study unmasks something that is wrong with the participant. Regardless the study was redone multiple times to ensure quality. The results of this experiment were controversial and unexpected. 65% of the participants in the study ended up “shocking” the actor at the full intensity 450 volts. Everyone else made it up to 300 volts before stopping. Some potential faults in the study sprang up as criticism. Firstly, the experimenter may have used more than 4 prompts at times in order to entice the participants to continue.

Also, participants may have realized during the process that the study was too intense to be real. In the original published paper Milgram wrote how, “every participant paused and questioned the experiment; some said they would refund the money they were paid for participating in the experiment. Throughout the experiment, subjects displayed varying degrees of tension and stress. Subjects were sweating, trembling, stuttering, biting their lips, groaning, digging their fingernails into their skin, and some were even having nervous laughing fits or seizures” (Milgram, 1963). The results of the study showed how easily people could be turned into agents of terror. Milgram’s conclusions on the study pointed to the fact that ordinary people can become part of a terrible destructive process because they do not have the moral power to resist authority. Although most people showed compassion towards the learner throughout the process, the lack of ability to stop when something noticeably harmful was going on is an indication of one’s willingness to obey authority.

One theory proposed by people related to the study was how people will generally be willing to help those in their own kin and do harmful things to others. This may be part of a long lasting human trait passed down from our tribal ancestors. The reasoning behind the study also takes the form of two other theories that Milgram elaborated on. Milgram proposed two “agent” theories for the behavior of the participants given orders. Firstly, he believed that they fell into an autonomous state when directing their own actions and that they took responsibility for those actions. However, under the presence of an experimenter, who not only paid them but also prodded them to go further, the subjects would pass the responsibility to the person giving the orders. This is called the “agentic” theory because the subjects are acting as agent’s for another person’s will.

In addition to this, Milgram proposed an explanation for the subjects purposely hurting another person. For a person to enter an agentic state there must believe the person giving them orders is qualified to do so and that this person will accept responsibility for what happens. In the case of the study, the design was so simple that all signs point to this being the case. People will generally omit responsibility for harmful actions if they are ordered by a legitimate person and know this person will take responsibility.

There have been many attempts to replicate the experiment simply in order to provide a clearer picture of this social injustice. The social implications of such human action can explain why there are genocides, or such ordered killing as seen in Rwanda, Yugoslavia or Sudan. However, with many other factors in play when it comes to killing people, maybe it is possible to extend the results of this study towards to business world. Most people in the workforce get orders from their superiors. Those people may be perpetrating harmful actions to others or to the environment for the sole purpose of profits for their company. In this case, their actions are much the same as in the experiment, except the shocks are replaced by backstabbing, deceit and destruction.

Society is slowly destroying the world in order to create a momentary increase in value for shareholders of large companies. Building a fundamentally sustainable society depends on reversing the trend of “using” subordinates to do the dirty work. Society needs to start to use people for their creative brilliance. When people are told what to do, they may act in a robotic, harmful and counter productive way. The true brilliance in every person depends on his autonomy. In addition to this, the kinship between people working together is important because people that do not know each other may be more willing to cause harm to each other.

In conclusion, Stanley Milgram’s 1963 experiment proved to be an important portrayal of human immorality at the hands of obedience. At a time where the world was trying to find answers as to how 6 million Jews could be killed, this experiment attempted to show how obedience to authority might have played a part. The majority of the participants in the study shocked another human with a lethal dose of electricity in order to comply with the orders of an experimenter. Milgram reasoned that these actions only happened because the participant felt he was the agent of another’s wishes (agentic theory) and that the responsibilities of their actions were inadmissible. The results of this study may explain why the business world is in such disarray. At some point we cannot continue to put the responsibility of our actions on somebody else’s head.

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