Everyone thinks that they are their own person and follow their own rules, but daily we are restricted from doing what we want. Our teachers give us homework, our parents give us chores, and our bosses give us work. Why do we do these things if we don’t want to? It is because we live in a society where we follow the rules of authoritative figures. This isn’t necessarily always a bad thing, because some rules are needed for structure. It is when authority is used for the wrong reasons that we can see a problem, because people will still listen to them regardless of whether they agree or not. Many people become complicit and do things outside of their comfort zone, or compromise their morals, because they believe the person in power knows best. This is not to take the blame off of those who perpetrate because they are guilty, they did commit awful crimes in the cases of genocide or mass murders, but the real question is why. Would they have done this if they weren’t told to? I think that the Milgram experiment gives a lot of insight into this question because the statistics changed depending on the scenario, but a lot of people also might have been misled by the promise of money. In the cases of the Holocaust, or the Rwandan Genocide, those perpetrators were promised their lives, so in the end it really came down to the choice of survival.
This was not my first time hearing of the Milgram experiment, but this is my first time watching it and thinking about it within the context of genocide. For me this really added another layer to my understanding of perpetrators in any genocide, as it was evident how people act when an authoritative figure tells them to. It was surprising that the “teacher” was able to hear his “student” clearly suffering, yet he continued to give shocks because he was told to. I think people are more able to hurt others if they aren’t able to see or hear them suffering. It’s a lot easier for people to convince themselves they are still “good people” if they didn’t physically inflict pain on a person face to face. Many people used the example of those who had to drop the Zyklon B into the gas chambers. These people knew what they were doing, and who they were doing it to but didn’t have to see it for themselves which made it a lot “easier” for them to move on from. If they were forced to watch what happened when they dropped the Zyklon B into the chambers then I think their willingness would have changed a lot. In the Rwandan Genocide however, it was a lot different as people had to physically inflict pain on others via machete and watch them die. They saw the blood spill on the ground and yet still continued to do it one murder after another. These are two completely different scenarios, one where a perpetrator didn’t see the result of their actions and another when they did, but they have one commonality which is the position of authority in their decisions. These people were told to commit such evil by people in power and who they trusted as knowing what was best for them. Obviously it doesn’t seem that murdering or hurting anyone could be the best thing to do, but when that idea is constantly imposed on a person and they seemingly have no other option it is much more clear why they would do it.
To bring it back to the Milgram experiment it was really interesting to see how the statistics changed depending on the different scenarios. When the authority figure gave the instructions over the phone only 21% of the “teachers” gave the full 450 volts. This implies that the figure of authority is still relevant, yet when it is not right in front of a person they are less willing to comply. It is a lot easier to dismiss a person when they aren’t right in front of you to tell you what to do because you don’t have to face them or fight back, you can just hang up the phone and walk away. When the “teacher” had to put the “learner’s” hand on the metal plate to give the shock, only 30% obeyed the experiment. This is another striking statistic because although it does show that some people still were willing even when they had to physically administer the pain themselves, it was a lot less than when they didn’t. It is surprising to me that it wasn’t less people because it means that people were able to do this actually thinking they were hurting someone else and watching it. Pink Cat Lover said something profound in her post about human behavior, “a human may lose track of one's morals and ethics if it is at hand of a situation in which they are aided to believe in being absolutely essential.” I think this is relevant here because it shows why people are so easily willing to dismiss their morals because they believe their actions are a part of a “greater good.” They are convinced that their role is important and that they must continue to satisfy the authority and satisfy their obligations to this duty.
The most general statistic is that 65% of the “teachers” gave the 450 volts, and that is extremely significant. With only this information it is easy to generalize human behavior, but knowing all of the other statistics is essential to understanding as well. The fact that we are able to change our behavior based on the circumstance is something that seems obvious but is still surprising to me. In the clip that we watched the “teacher” did reach the 450 volts while thinking that something horrific had happened to the “student” but he still continued. He got up from his seat, but never left its side to go check on the student himself, or to leave the room. He said he couldn’t continue but it wasn’t hard to convince him when the authoritative figure told him that the experiment must continue. Another factor is the white lab coat. I think this represents a certain level of authority to some people and factors into their willingness to comply because to them it seems like this person is in more power than a person who would just be wearing a casual outfit. It is interesting that they didn’t need to see any credentials to think that this person was a doctor or scientist, they just simply believed it based on that white coat.
Overall, this experiment really got me thinking deeply. It made me think of how these people must have felt when the results were revealed to them, now knowing they were capable of such a horrible thing. It made me realize how much we value authority in society and we often don’t question ourselves when hearing something from a person in a position of power. It was astonishing to see these everyday people come in for an experiment, and leave knowing a completely other side of themselves. I wonder how many of them would have come in if they had known what the experiment actually was. I also wonder the psychological effects that this experiment had on those who played the “teacher.”
“It is psychologically easy to ignore responsibility when one is only an intermediate link in a chain of evil action but is far from the final consequences of the action.” Milgram himself noted this about his experiment and it directly connected to the portion of it that we watched. When the “teacher” would begin to become reluctant the authoritative figure would reassure him that he wouldn’t be held accountable, and that is what drove him to continue. For me that is an awfully sickening thing to think about because it means that it wasn’t that he actively wanted to do it, but he did because he wouldn’t have to bear the consequences. I think that is true for most scenarios in life, because part of the reason we feel such great remorse is because we got caught. For a lighter example, students who cheat in school. They don’t feel bad during the time they are doing it because it is benefiting them, but as soon as they are caught they begin to feel remorse because they have to face the punishments and disappointment of their teacher. I think that Milgram’s observation here describes something unique about the human experience and couldn’t have been more well put. With that being said, I’m not exactly sure how to explain the reason. It is so complex and varied that it is hard to generalize this context, but I do believe it does represent a trend in human behavior. Simply put, people are more willing to do things when they don’t fear the repercussions.
My major takeaway from this experiment, is that events such as the Holocaust or the Rwandan Genocide aren’t isolated events. They are both different in their own ways and deserve that proper recognition, but they are inherently not that different in terms of why they happened. It is not because all the people in Germany or all the people in Rwanda are bad people who don’t know right from wrong, but it is because they were forced to compromise those values in these instances. The people in the SS weren’t awful people, until they committed these crimes, and often came from backgrounds not too different than our own. The Hutus in Rwanda weren’t all sick or insane to have done such horrific things, in fact they were friends or neighbors with many of the people that they viciously slaughtered to death. It really makes you think when you see it like this because it shows that blaming it on mental illness or evil (although at times it may be the case) is too easy of a solution. It takes away from the complexity of the human experience and also distances people like us, who learn about these atrocities, from recognizing that these genocides connect to us. We are not able to say that we will all be upstanders, or never commit a crime because the truth is some of may be able to if fear and authority were factored in. This post made me realize a lot about myself and just humans in general, because we all go through life thinking we know ourselves to the greatest extent, but the truth is if we experienced anything like these atrocities it is hard to see yourself in that same light.
Lawrence 1912 raised an interesting question, “Did this experiment only work because it was set in America? Would have worked in another culture? Also, what other variables may have altered the outcome? How would they have altered the outcome?” I think this experiment could have worked in another country with a different culture than in America, because I don’t think it is simply a characteristic of American people to behave like this under the pressure of authority. In places where freedom of speech and human rights in general are oppressed there may have been changes in results or more people willing to comply based on how their lives are already ruled by authority. I kind of addressed this point in the beginning of my post, I think it is a mistake to look at this as an isolated event that could only happen in America or only happen with this specific group of white men. I think this experiment represents a side of each of us that we don’t want to believe exists and it is important to acknowledge that these people are no different from anyone else. With that being said to address another variable, I think it is important to factor in the results of people of color and women. Although I do think there would be some of the same trends, I think there would have been an interesting difference to see how another group of people other than white men would behave under these conditions.
The question I would like to pose is this: One thing I was constantly wondering about during the clip was how the “teachers” would have been affected if the demeanor of the authoritative figure changed. I know this may not seem like a compelling question, but for me it is because I know when I am yelled at I am more willing to do what that person says because they are visibly angry. The person in power talked in a level voice, and just said that the experiment must go on. But what if that level voice turned to screaming and cursing? Would that make people continue or walk away, and why? How does the level of someone’s voice influence a human’s behavior, and why?