Monday, February 5, 2018

Obedience and Consent: Can Morality be Impaired by Authority?

How does Milgram's experiment help explain obedience? If we were to conduct it now, do you think we would get similar results? Why? 

Obedience to authority is an important topic of discussion due to its influence on individual life and its importance in the organization of social structures that are at the base of social relationships. One could argue that the basis of obedience lies in ideological submission while interpreting a reality about the authoritarian figure - seeing them as a model or guide while giving them a status of legitimacy and establishing a level of trust (the opposite nature of disobedience). Furthermore, the obedient person may morally disengage; they may stop feeling responsible and, consequently, guilt-free for their actions when they’re following orders (Hinrichs 2007, 2012). This mental process can be the same for a soldier who shoots innocent people in a village as for some of the subjects in Stanley Milgram’s experiment.
The Stanley Milgram’s experiment is one of the most well-known social studies on obedience. During most of Milgram’s experiment, many subjects showed signs of tension and anguish when they heard screams in the adjoining room that, for the subject, appeared to be caused by electric shocks; yet these subjects continued administering the shocks when they were instructed to proceed. The experiment was concluded by the experimenter after three 450 volt discharges. The results of the experiment suggest that when a subject obeys, his/her conscience “stops working” and there is a displacement of responsibility to the authoritarian figure similarly to other studies on obedience (Bandura et al, 1975; Hinrichs, 2007). In addition, the subjects are more obedient the less contact they’ve had with the victim and the further away they are from them physically - perhaps as an indication of a lack of emotional attachment. The subjects with authoritarian personality are more obedient than the non-authoritarian ones; so the closer to authority, the greater the obedience (Milgram, 1963).
For Milgram, respect and obedience to authority has its origin in the need for the principle of hierarchy, with a survival value, and it’s a socially stabilizing factor. The principle of obedience to authority has been defended in our civilizations as one of the pillars on which society is sustained. Generally, obedience to authority allows the protection of the subject. When we are obedient we are able to collaborate and participate in works for the common good which, in turn, allows stable relationships with others. For example, when we put our garbage out on the curb, we are obeying a social code while, at the same time, we take care of our homes and the environment. And if people don’t obey traffic signals and codes, our cities would be chaotic and there would be an increase in accidents. Therefore, we can see obedience as a necessary skill for there to be respect and harmony, and as a characteristic or acquired skill that has proven to be beneficial for the survival of our species. And since we have the necessary structures to develop obedience, this capacity is just as evolutionary as our consciousness (Milgram, 1963).
However, reasons for obedience don’t necessarily operate alone. They may be in combination with other factors such as conviction or faith (as in the case of some religious sects), interest (i.e. reward, satisfaction, a need for acceptance, self-preservation, personal goals), influence or pressure, fear or intimidation, duty, loyalty, emotional attachment (or lack thereof) and/or habit or conformity. Obedience can also be a double-edged sword and disguise sadistic impulses (Bandura et al, 1975). Each of these factors - or a combination of them - may explain why, even in less friendly contexts, many develop a high level of obedience to their idea of authority while submitting to the will of others and renouncing their own.
The Milgram experiment is one of the social psychology experiments of greatest interest when it comes to demonstrating how fragile our moral values can be in the face of blind, unquestionable obedience to authority (Woolsey Biggart et Hamilton, 1984). Taking all this into consideration, the idea of the repetition of this experiment producing similar results is not far-fetched.
The many possible factors underlying obedience can help us reflect on the complexities of our species and what dogmas are far from explaining our reality. It’s necessary to shed light on the complexity of human behavior in order to understand the reasons behind their decision-making process. I believe, however, that if in theoretically friendly conditions we lose our autonomy and don’t opt for the morally possible decision to rebel, then perhaps our instinct - or motivation - to obey is stronger than our moral sense. Milgram did nothing more than to bring to light an already suspected trait of human nature.

Stanley Milgram

If we were to conduct Millgram's experiment now, do you think we would get similar results? Why? Comment below.

Thanks for reading!

Badura, A. Underwood, B. Fromson, M (December 1975). Disinhibition of aggression through diffusion of responsibility and dehumanization of victims. Journal of Research in Personality. Volume 9, Issue 4. Pages 253-269.

Milgram, Stanley (1963). Behavioral Study of Obedience. Yale University.

Hinrichs, Kim T (August 2007). Follower Propensity to Commit Crimes of Obedience: The Role of Leadership Beliefs. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies.

Hinrichs, Kim T (January 2012). Moral Disengagement Through Displacement of Responsibility: The Role of Leadership Beliefs. Journal of Applied Social Psychology.  

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