Are Humans Inherently Evil?


Özge Üstündağ

How likely are you to obey those who seem to be in positions of power? Would you be willing take on each and every task just because your supervisor demanded that you do so?

There are a myriad of reasons why you might want to obey people who are your superiors.   These might range from wanting to keep your job secure to a desire to be a “good” employee at work.

Research into topics like obedience got triggered especially after World War II with the works of prominent social psychologists of the 1960s such as Stanley Milgram. The infamous Holocaust and similar atrocities during the war later gave birth to a period in which researchers subjected the nature of personal conscience to scrutiny and sought to illuminate the underlying reasons for why people obey those in a position of power. Without a doubt, Milgram’s electric shock experiment metaphorically “shocked” millions as it suggested that people blindly follow orders no matter the consequences.

Nowadays, though, psychologists have started uncovering some holes regarding Milgram’s obedience experiment. At “İzmir Psychology Days,” held early May at Turkey’s principal Aegean port city that honored the recent passing of Turkish social psychologist, Dr. Nuri Bilgin, Asst. Prof. Serap Akfırat (of Dokuz Eylül University), re-examined some overlooked  details in a bid  to evaluate Milgram’s experiments from the perspective of today’s social psychologists. 

The events giving rise to Milgram’s obedience experiment

The systematic massacre of millions of Jews and other innocent people at Nazi concentration camps were the primary events that triggered the scientific research on obedience. After the war was over, many of the prosecuted Nazis sought to absolve themselves of any responsibility for the Jewish genocide, shifting the blame to their superiors. They defended their actions by saying that their training and indoctrination demanded unquestioning obedience to the orders they were given.

Did the justifications put forth by Nazi soldiers suggest that people have a natural tendency to obey those who present themselves as “experts”? Essentially, what Milgram wanted to find out through his experiment was whether or not ordinary people were prone to giving high-voltage electric shocks as punishment to an innocent person when ordered by an authority figure? And if so, why?

The original experiment

Milgram carried out his obedience experiment in the early 1960s with a group of 40 men (20-50 years old), residing in the greater New Haven (Connecticut, USA) area. The “experimenter” (someone other than Milgram) told the participants that the researchers of the study were interested in examining the role of punishment in learning. Participants were led to believe that they were either going to be playing the role of the “learner” or the “teacher” in the experiment when in fact the learner was always the same person, a confederate in the study. The teacher was supposed test the learner on a series of word pairs and give him a shock for any wrong answer. Moreover, the learner and the teacher were sat in separate rooms and the teacher was told to increase the shocks for each mistake (15V-450V). The experimenter prodded the teacher to keep increasing the shocks even when he refused to obey. For instance, the experimenter would prod the teacher by saying, “It is absolutely essential that you continue” or “You have no other choice but to continue.” (Of course, no one in the study was actually shocked.)

As a prelude to the experiment, the teacher saw the learner sitting in the room next door with his hands strapped to a chair with electrodes. The learner even mentioned that he had a heart condition. After the teacher and the experiment left the room, the so called, “learner,” untied his hands and placed a voice recorder on the table instead. The wrong answers (which were planned) were coordinated with a particular shock level. The participants were made to believe that the learner was protesting the shocks when in fact it was just a voice recorder. For instance, the learner would yell, “Experimenter gets me out of here!” In essence, the participants were put under a lot of emotional pressure.

Findings

The results were mind blowing. It was reported that two-thirds of the participants continued to give shocks all the way to 450V. However, did the results truly reflect reality?

As Dr. Akfırat pointed out in her discussion, there were key details in the study that did not receive the attention they deserved. For example, being physically close to the learner, (“the victim”) inversely affected obedience. In other words, when the teachers were able to see the learner, they refused to give shocks all the way up to 450V. Furthermore, the less prestigious and credible the experimenter was perceived, the less likely the participants were to obey him. When the researcher was perceived to be someone outside of Yale University, the rates of obedience significantly decreased. Finally, teachers’ desire to be “good subjects” also decreased their willingness to go on with the experiment. The results were confusing as the subjects’ desire to contribute to science may have influenced their willingness to obey the researcher.

Bringing Milgram’s obedience experiment out of the closet revealed that humans do not actually have a natural tendency to obey authority figures. Multiple factors such as the credibility of the “expert” and the intentions of the study influence the degree to which people want to follow orders from others. Moreover, the archive studies show that people commit good/bad actions not necessarily because someone orders them to but because they sincerely believe that they are doing what they believe to be the “right” thing in that situation.

REFERENCES

  • 1. Akfırat, S. (2015, Mayıs). Sosyal psikolojideki klasik deneyler üzerine güncel tartışmalar: Zimbardo’nun hapishane deneyi ve Milgram’ın itaat deneyi. Dokuz Eylül Üniversitesi, İzmir.
  • 2. Milgram, S. (1963),“Behavioral study of obedience”, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-378.