Friday, April 18, 2014

The Perils of Obedience


By John Calder

The Perils of Obedience - An Essay on “Behavioral Study of Obedience” by Stanley Milgram Psychologist (b. 1933-d.1984)

Dr. Milgrams experiments with Peer Shock Administration derived from his interest in the Nuremberg trials following World War II. In particular interest was that of Adolph Eichmann, the ‘Architect’ of the “Jewish Solution” known as the Holocaust.

Upon Eichmann’s capture in Argentina in 1960, he was transported to Israel by the Mossad for trial. Key to his defense, as a good German Officer Mr. Eichmann declared “I was only doing my job”. A phrase[1] that has been since never to be forgotten and certainly must have made an impression on Dr. Milgram, a New York City born Jew and a recent Harvard graduate.

Eichmann defense was based upon the responsibility to follow orders, regardless of their source or moral content. It was his defined duty to act in such a manner.  Could such a behavior be anything less than psychotic? Dr. Milgram was determined to find out.

Dr. Milgram set up a testing environment that include the primary authority figure, The “Experimenter”, the testing subject themselves was called the “Teacher” and an actor, who like the “Experimenter” was part of the test team, playing the role of the “Learner”.

The Teacher would recite a series of words for the Learner to repeat. If the Learner made a mistake, punishment in the for of an electrical shock, with a variety of setting from low (mild shock) to very high (extremely painful), who be applied by the Teacher until the Learner got the right answer. Of course, the actor pretended to get shocked as no actual shock was administered.

The Experimenter, prodding the Teacher to increase punishment, oversaw all of these actions.
The most basic observation indeed verified Eichmann’s defense, that once authority was suspended from the individual and accepted by a higher authority (Experimenter), indeed the Teacher, the target test subject, would apply unspeakable punishment without question.

Dr. Milgram tested numerous variations of this experiment and has verified the basic hypothesis except for the following 3 conditions:
  •        The Experimenter must be physically present for unquestioned obedience from the Teacher
  • .      Authority lines must be clear. No conflicting sources or the Teacher would fail to punish.
  •        Peer pressure rebellion will cause the Teacher to refuse punishment.

I found this absolutely fascinating, as over my years in business I have developed a similar conclusion, yet I never had any exposure to this information. I concluded to never put family, business or myself in a situation where someone in power has the right to make yes/no decision that will have an adverse effect. I conclude people in these situations will always NO because they CAN, not because they want to. My person confirmation of the “Behavioral Study of Obedience”



[1] A derivative of this phrase was included in the 60’s WWII Comedy “Hogan’s Hero’s” where the forever inept Nazi character Sgt. Shultz would repeat “I saw nothing! I know nothing”. How, in the 60’s, a group of Jewish writer, Directors and Producers, who certainly have lost family member to the Holocaust, decided to create a “Whacky Nazi Sitcom” is beyond the scope of this analysis but should be the subject of another study itself.

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