Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Obeying orders

I went to see a Dar Williams concert last night at the Boulder Theater. She was incredible, as always, and she played her new song "Buzzer," which meditates on Stanley Milgram's Obedience to Authority experiments from the early 1960s.

The song:
(Lyrics here)

For those who don't know, the Milgram experiment was designed to understand how people respond to authority and how far they are willing to go to obey authority figures even if what they're being asked to do is harmful to another human being. Some people aren't convinced that Milgram's experiment was scientifically-viable in terms of the conclusions he drew from the results, but nevertheless the experiment is still relevant.

Milgram advertised the experiment, conducted at Yale University, as learning study in which one person would administer increasingly strong shocks to another person whenever they answered certain questions wrong. The actual experiment--which wasn't shared until after all the results were collected--was seeing how many people would be willing to go to the maximum voltage of shock treatment if they were told to do so by an authority figure (Milgram himself). The results were astounding: most participants went all the way up to the highest voltage even when the person being shocked (who was an actor only pretending to be shocked) screamed in pain and begged them to stop.

In an essay querying, "When is it proper to refuse to obey authority figures, even if they have been democratically chosen for their positions?" a man who took part in the original Milgram experiment explains, "The results of the Milgram experiment should not surprise us. Most people unquestioningly obey orders from authorities, and refusal is unusual. As children, after all, we are taught to obey our parents, teachers, employers and law enforcement officers."

Have times changed? Would most people go into an experiment like this nowadays and blatantly refuse to participate? Last year, ABC News re-created the experiment with similar results (although their testing pool was quite small and, hence, not a scientific cross-section).

Milgram was interested in understanding the cause behind "evil" actions and, in particular, how fascism takes root among "ordinary" citizens. But I don't need to conduct an experiment in order to see that some McCain-Palin supporters, with their racist, scary mob mentality, are running headlong in that direction:

H/T Feministing

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