The other day in my post entitled ‘The Lucifer Effect’ I explained how normal people can do bad things due to situational circumstances (hence the reasoning behind devastating events like genocides and the cause of medias’ recent buzz topic–teenage bullying).

I wanted to talk about a concept related to that topic which we rarely contemplate; ‘blind obedience’  were all susceptible to it but to what degree?

Although all of us would like to believe that everyday we make our own decisions, due to the inherent rules of contemporary society, democracy, consumerism, religion, the judicial system, family tradition etc…we spend a big part of our lives just following rules –but how far does this go? ( I mean beyond the obvious rules we follow for our own safety and comfort, like driving on a certain side of the road or assigning plastic cards with a monetary value.)

Now this takes me back to my philosophy days … it’s always hard for me to wrap my mind around some of these concepts because either I didn’t want to believe that the world and my mind worked a certain way, or that I was completely unaware and unprepared to deal with the concept as it had never even crossed my mind.

Martin Heidegger, a great German philosopher and one of the founding fathers of post-modernism,  talked about this a lot. He said that we needed to think contemplatively; he called it the ‘vita contemplativa.’ –translated from Greek to English as the contemplative life.

Remember that greek statue that has that guy sitting down with his hand under his chin… I think it’s called the ‘thinking man,’ and that’s what Heidegger wanted us to do–think. He said that humanity needed to focus their thoughts and clear their mind to be open to finding out the answers to the questions of existence or what he named the ‘Call of Being.”

So why don’t we think contemplatively? Heidegger said that there are too many distractions around us to get to this thought process. These distractions are not only the material items we value on a psychological and social level, but the entire ontical world. Anyways, I just find it crazy that he made these observations way back in the day, before computers, internet, modern technology, radios and cellphones etc. If he lived in today’s world, this philosopher would definitely be telling us we need to think more.

I always try to live my life to that philosophy; questioning the norm,  considering the possibilities, and never believing everything I hear or see. When I tell my friends that the media controls them; they think that I’m talking about a conspiracy.

As someone who has devoted the past 5 years of tertiary study towards forms and methods of communication, I’ve learned that all modes of media have had some impact or control over the thinking and acting process of the average person (particularly in the Western society, but also in developing countries)… but this is a whole different blog post which I’ll elaborate on another day.

Today, my post is about ‘blind obedience’ and the ‘Milgram experiment.’

The ‘Milgram experiment’ was held at Yale University in July 1961 by Stanley Milgram. He was trying to prove that people could sometimes ignore their moral beliefs by following orders placed on them from an authority figure. This experiment was initiated during the trial of a well-known Nazi war criminal.

This experiment showed that the unknowing subjects tend to believe if a person of authority makes a decision or gives a command, that decision/command should be followed without question simply because the authority figure said so. Now this rule doesn’t only apply to people who work in military like occupations, but it’s illustrated on a regularly in our everyday lives in varying degrees.

So how was the experiment conducted?

There were three people in this experiment, the experimenter (the authority figure), the teacher (the unknowing subject), and the learner (the actor). With two people who know whats going on, and the subject clueless, the experimenter wanted to measure the willingness of the subject to obey an authority figure who instructed them to do tasks that conflicted with their moral beliefs/conscience.

The participants were brought into the experiment via a promotional poster:

Being offered $4 for an hour of your time must have been pretty good back then–considering last time I was in Canada, minimum wage was about $9/h. So once the subject was chosen they were taken to a room with another person who was actually an actor.

They drew pieces of paper to ‘determine’ their roles. Both slips actually had the word teacher on them but the actor would claim that theirs said learner. This was done so the subject would think that it was random but they were actually given a pre-determined role.

The teacher (subject) and learner (actor) were then separated into different rooms. There were several versions of this experiment to learn how each variant would cause the subject’s to reaction to change, but the main common factor was that the subject could communicate with the learner (actor) but not see them.

The “teacher” (subject) was given an electric shock from the generator as an example of the shock that the “learner” (actor) would receive during the experiment.

The teacher/subject was then given a list of word pairs which he was to teach the learner/actor. The subject was then instructed to read the list of word pairs to the other person. Then he continued by reading the first word of each pair and read four possible answers. The learner would press a button to show his response. If the answer was incorrect, the subject would  shock to the learner, with the shock increasing by15-volts for each wrong answer.

The subjects believed that for each wrong answer, the learner was receiving actual shocks. In reality, there were no shocks and the learner was acting as if they were in pain. The shocks seemed real by having a tape recorded shock sound and of course, the reaction from the learner.  After several times banging on the wall and complaining about his heart condition, all responses by the actor would stop.

Many of the subjects expressed the desire to stop the experiment and check on the safety of the learner. Some actually stopped and began to question the purpose of the experiment; however, most continued after being re-assured  by the experimenter (authority figure who told them to) that they would not be held responsible for anything that happens.

“Milgram noted that a few of the subjects began to laugh nervously and exhibit signs of extreme stress once they heard the screams of pain coming from the learner.” Stanley Milgram (1963). “Behavioral Study of Obedience”

In order to find out the subject’s willingness to do something they were against, if they wanted to stop during the experiment, the experimenter (authority figure) who was in the same room with them would say a series of phrases in this order.

  1. Please continue.
  2. The experiment requires that you continue.
  3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  4. You have no other choice, you must go on.

If the unknowing subject still insisted on stopping the experiment after all four phrases were used, then the experiment was stopped. Also, if the subject got to the maximum voltage (of 450-volts) and had given it to the learner in the other room three times, the experiment was also stopped.

“I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants'] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants'] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.” Stanley Milgram (1974), “The Perils of Obedience.” Harper’s Magazine.

This experiment has now been repeated several times, and has garnered consistent results in different societies.

The University of Maryland’s Dr. Thomas Blass did an analysis of the different results and concluded that the “percentage of participants who are prepared to inflict fatal voltages remains remarkably constant, 61–66 percent, regardless of time or place.”

It was found that in Asia, the obedience percentage was even greater than America, especially in East Asian and Muslim regions; however, aboriginal populations of Africa and Inuit of Canada show much lower obedience percentage.

So has this effected anyone else?

LOL, oddly enough from 1995 to 2004, there was a series of hoaxes, dubbed the ‘strip search prank call scam.’  It happened in popular fast food chains across America. A guy called a franchise and claiming to be a police officer he  persuaded managers and supervisors (people with authority roles) to  perform acts which they would not have done under normal circumstances.

Also, several prank calls have been made to hotel rooms, in which the caller instructs the occupant to commit increasingly severe acts of vandalism. In one particular case, on The Smoking Gun, a hotel employee and customer set off the fire alarm, broke lobby windows, activated the sprinkler system and shut down the main power, causing a total of over $50,000 worth of damages.

LOL crazy, so if you  gain anything from this super long post, let it be that you should always think for yourself and question authority! Fight the law … even though it usually wins.


PS–You may remember my obsession with street art from my article on the great documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop, all photos are by Shepard Fairy, who’s main motivation behind his ‘Obey Campaign’ was to make people think about our own blind obedience.

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About rachelnico

Social Commentator Extraordinaire

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