After taking the time to recover from the initial shock that was witnessing the experiment shown in class for the first time, I was able to take a step back from the events and process. At the time I remember being shocked and appalled. Now I do not feel as such. I personally try to approach psychology through the lense of an evolutionary understanding. It is my firm belief that humanity’s ability to be cognizant is an unfortunate result of evolution, and instead of perishing at a point to allow some more developed life form to become a more dominant species, we stuck it out. As a result, many of the ways we approach situations in society are based on animalistic instincts not designed or developed for the world we live in. When we a re presented with a situation outside our natural abilities, we default upon or primal instincts for direction. For example, humans did not evolve in order to be able to participate in Milgram’s Obedience experiment, yet we are still able to carry it out.
What I saw in this experiment was the instinctual desire for survival taking hold. In herd-based animal communities there are usually a set of animals that become leaders, whether that be a parent or a more dominant animal in the pack, and that the other animals tend to follow such an animal without question due to it helping the larger pack survive. Bringing it back to the human perspective, in the case of the obedience test we see a man, likely a blue collar worker, conduct the test. He has a free will, and independent emotions and perspectives, but we see that he views the examiners as holding the dominant position. They are, to him at a basic level, an individual that is more learned and capable to lead, and thus must be followed. The man repeatedly tries to resist in a situation he has neve encountered, was never evolved to encounter or conditioned in society to face. As such he relies on his subconscious to guide him in which there are 3 conflicting thoughts. The first being “I need to protect others like me”, the second being “I want to avoid death” and third being “the leader shall protect me”. Often times humans will weigh out these choices in their head quickly. I believe we all have an innate sense to help others, and that is clear by the way the man reacted during the test, but we have an equally strong, if not stronger desire to survive. The desire to survive coupled with the desire to follow an individual who may ensure that often times results in the third desire to help others being over-ruled. In the case of Nazi Germany, we have Hitler, a charismatic, dominant figure that promises food, jobs, and stability for the people, with the cost being that of the lives of other humans. In the Rwandan Genocide we see individuals who rally behind dominant figures promising survival again for the simple coast of human lives. You see these three ideas can be combined and constructed into a number for more complex ideas. For example, as is commonly seen in the cases of human disaster and tragedy, often times a charismatic leader, promising survival, uses a person’s desire for survival to highlight how another group of people threaten that through things such as disease, the taking of jobs and food, being lesser and “cockroaches”. This practice used by demagogues, for this reason, is highly successful, and is seen clearly in the events that transpired during the Rwandan genocide and the Milgram test.
There is a difference between what a person is willing to do and what they are capable of doing. Besides the obvious differentiation between these two, I think there is a case to made here based on the experiment for the idea that these two concepts are fundamentally linked. We see in the experiment shown that there were several test subjects that clearly were not willing to continue to “shock” the ‘learner’ but continued to demonstrate that they were capable of doing so. The proper motivation, information, or lack of thereof (in the case of an uneducated population or one that has had information selectively fed to them) can cause virtually anyone to be capable of something as horrific as taking a machete to cut down a neighbor. Humans are gullible, humans are naïve, humans often lack critical thinking skills. Worst of all, humans are terrible at admitting these faults, and trying to work together to overcome these. We’d rather ostracize individuals, “other” them, than put in the effort. Not really out of laziness. I believe again, that it’s rooted in this desire to just live. As much as we want to help others in our metaphorical pack, we do not care for others that reside outside it. Tribal divisions, race, color, ethnicity, language; all dividers in our society that make it easier to shut ourselves off from those who are in need. It was dangerous to stick your neck out for someone else, and it still can be/ Why risk your life for someone or something that does not directly impact the extension of your group’s existence?
In many ways we are quick to label those around us as good, as bad, as a stranger, as a friend. If this class has taught me anything it is that nothing is it seems, and it may be harder than you think to point your finger at someone and place the blame. It’s probably the point. As Ilovechocolate entails, we live in a world of grey, there is no clear distinction here of a good or bad person. We all have our reasons to do things. The truly important thing is however, we must not let those reasons become excuses. We must be aware of our base human nature and work to overcome that. We have randomly stumbled into a world we were never built to handle. Humans have the power to do terrible evil as a result, and even worse things as we can recognize the impact those horrible actions can have. At the same time we should have the power to do many good things as well. It just takes an effort.
In response to Creation-Myth’s question:
In a way I believe schools inadvertently teach disobedience. I was speaking with a former BLS student the other day about something they had realized about the school. They found that every single year, there was always some debate posed about the dress code. Some administrator would push for more conservative rulings, causing the students to lead active protests against the rules. They found that BLS was full of these policies that constantly came in and out of existence and in a variety of forms of intensity, almost always causing some sort of disobedience from the student body. Whether it be intentional or not, this back and forth, they found, highly encouraged students to practice peaceful forms of disobedience and self-thought.
It is like the age old sentiment that without conflict there can be no positivity, there is some sort of balance that must be struck. People forget horrible things and the reasons for why things are the way they are, so they ignore rules based on such events. Others find rules made in times no longer applicable to our own, and seek to destroy such rules or create no ones in their stead.
The problem is, you can’t tell someone to be disobedient! Then they would just be obeying you! It is itself a paradox. Maybe this is why so many schools seem to be so unfair, or unjust. Maybe it is to facilitate this form of disobedience. At the same time disobedience for disobedience sake is pointless and chaotic without reason. Making people believe that everything is terrible will make people forget how to make things good, or how to appreciate and spread good in the world. For now, as we have evolved as a species, most people, myself included, rely on authority and regulations to make society work. Maybe some day in the future things will be different but I simply do not know.
How can you educate a society to combat basic human instincts? How can we turn these instincts around to better serve us? How can these ideas help dissolve demagogues and practices that relate to them?
Very thoughtful post. I was thinking that if we shared these experiments and books with others it would help people understand their automatic response to authority and others bearing responsibility. I know for me, I was able to re- question my own morality.