Tag Archives: Milgram experiment

Psychology and Autocracy

A recent op-ed in the New York Times warned that would-be autocrats–yes, Donald, we’re looking at you–get very dangerous when cornered. As Trump finds it more and more difficult to live in the fantasy-land he has constructed, there’s no telling what he might do.

This caution is similar to worries I’ve heard expressed about the time period between the election and January 21st, when (hopefully!) a new President assumes office. Both concerns are valid–and we all need to recognize that the feckless Republicans in Congress are responsible for whatever happens.

A reference in that same op-ed made me think about the blind obedience of those Republican elected officials.

After noting the departure of ethical Executive Branch officials and their replacement with “an army of pliant flunkies and toadies at the agencies, combined with the always-enabling Mitch McConnell and an increasingly emboldened attorney general, William Barr,”  the author wrote

Three years ago, a friend of mine shrewdly pointed out that Trump’s election would be like one long national Milgram experiment, the famous psychological study from the 1960s that revealed just how susceptible people are to authority, how depressingly willing they are to obey even the most horrifying commands.

Readers of this blog undoubtedly remember learning about the Milgram experiment, (initially undertaken to investigate why so many Germans had insisted that they had participated in genocide because they were “just following orders.”)

Volunteers were told that they were participating in an experiment in which they would be “teachers” administering electric shocks when “learners” gave incorrect answers. In reality, Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram was studying the willingness of people from a variety of backgrounds and a diverse set of occupations to obey an authority figure who ordered them to perform acts that were in conflict with their personal morality.

The fake electric shocks gradually increased to levels that would have been fatal had they been real. The experiment demonstrated that despite the discomfort and reluctance of most volunteers (and despite hearing the “learners” screaming in pain), a very high proportion of the volunteers continued to obey the authority figure’s instructions and administer the shocks..

Milgram himself summarized the experiment in 1974, in an article titled, “The Perils of Obedience”:

The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous importance, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. 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.

I’m still mulling over the applicability of the Milgram experiment to those we might consider Trump’s Republican “troops”–and what the results of the experiment might mean for America over the next few months.