Written by Ada den Hollander
Authority comes in many forms. In general, we can say that authority is a body or person with authority. For example, we can think of politicians, the police, the municipality, a professor, your GP or any other person to whom we attribute expertise that we do not have ourselves. When we were young, our parents, educators, and teachers played that role, shaping our beliefs and values later in life —getting ready for the big world, society. Obedience was seen as essential because the authority has the upper hand; who knows what they are talking about. As we grow older, we often question what these people taught us as the truth, valuable, right and wrong, and so we form our views, which often differ from what our influencers told us as children. We like to associate our opinions with being good and conscientious person who does not intentionally harm another.
On the contrary, we want to help and adhere to the rules as much as possible. Unless, of course, those rules go against your feelings in your opinion, you disobey and obstinate. That is personal, so not the same for everyone. One person is simply more docile than the other. In general, we can say that our conscience is the most important factor driving our behaviour. Some people have absolutely no conscience; those are the sociopaths in our midst, who make up no less than 4% of humanity. A shocking percentage, I would say. These people are not all criminals, serial killers or child molesters. Through extreme manipulation and the constant telling of blatant lies, they often manage to reach high positions. The following experiment shows that we can easily set our conscience aside when an authority prompts us to do so.
In 1961 and 1962, Professor Stanley Milgram conducted a psychological study with astounding results. Two men who do not know each other arrive at a laboratory under the guise that it is about memory and learning. Milgram tells the participants that the experiment is about the effects of punishment on learning. One of the two is the learner, the other the teacher. The learner is placed on a chair, and his arms are tied to the armrests. An electrode is then attached to his wrist. He is told to learn word pairs. For example, the colour blue belongs to the word bird. If he makes a mistake, he gets an electric shock.
The more mistakes, the stronger the shock. After the teacher sees that the learner is chained to his chair, the professor explains that he, the teacher, must inflict the shocks. He takes him to another room with a machine with buttons he can press to deliver the shocks, ranging from 15 volts to 450 volts to the learner. It should be clear that 450 volts through your body put your life in grave danger. Soon the learner has a hard time and screams that the shocks must stop, that he wants to be freed from his chair. However, in the same room as the teacher, the professor gently encourages him to continue. The teacher doesn’t know that the learner is the professor’s colleague and doesn’t get any shocks at all. He is only pretending in the context of the experiment. The experiment is performed 40 times, with people of different levels of education, all with the same result. You can already feel the mood. 34 out of 40 Participants continue to shock the learner, that’s 62.5%, even up to 450 volts. They sweat, complain and hold their heads in despair, but they carry on because the authoritative professor says they must. The only difference between the male and female participants was that the obedient females reported more stress than the males.
Then Milgram experimented with an ‘ordinary’ man giving the instructions, i.e. no authority, with the result that the percentage of those who obeyed fell from 62.5% to 20%.
The participants’ consciences were turned off by coûte que coûte obeying the authority, with the result that they didn’t care that they inflicted ‘the other’ enormous damage. The fact that the ‘ordinary’ man still scored 20% is perhaps since we want to do something well? Don’t want to disappoint the researcher? Those are my interpretations, by the way.
You can also extend the results of this experiment to the soldier. Their authoritative superior tells them that an enemy is an evil person, does not deserve the light in their eyes, in short, should be killed for the great good of the country for which they are fighting. With that mindset, the soldier leaves for the battlefield. Thoroughly indoctrinated and unable to think for themselves and with their conscience gone. When they come home, there is a damaged person, often with PTSD.
What about the conscience of the authority itself? Or your conscience? Is it sometimes gone for a while or on the back burner? Because you obey an authority which, in your opinion, knows better than you? Because your self-esteem is not optimal? Because you don’t take the effort to find the truth yourself but are lazy?
Do I need to go into the moral, or is this clear enough? I think so…
Source: The sociopath next door, Dr Martha Stout.