I was recently thinking about the Stanley Milgram experiment and realized this is a good topic for people to understand. This is an experiment done in 1961 and provided us evidence that people will follow the directions of an authority figure even if they feel they should not be doing what they are asked to do- in Milgram’s experiment 65% of participants continued to shock another person because a person in authority told them to even though the participant could hear the other person is in pain and asking to stop. Here’s a quick clip of that:
People often say that in current times with all the sensitivity training, people will stand up to authority figures more and not do something just because a person an authority tells them to do it; but that is not the case. Here are a couple more recent clips of this experiment:
Now watch this guy-
When I teach about this in college psychology classes I always have students tell me that they would NOT follow a person in authority. So I put them to the test. I don’t have the Milgram machine but I would do something else. Here’s what I did.
About a week after the discussion of the Milgram experiment (and Stanford Prison experiment) I told the class I want them to know what it is like to be the teacher and each gets a turn up front of the classroom. I asked for volunteers for the teacher role and had this person step outside the room and wait on me to come out and tell him/her what he/she will talk about. I told the rest of the class their job was to ignore the “student-teacher,” I told them to make the “student-teacher” annoyed and flustered. If the “student-teacher” asked them a question they were to refuse to answer or give an inappropriate answer. I then went out to the “student-teacher” and told him/her to engage the students – ask questions, make eye-contact, motive them, and get them interacting.
What happened was exactly as expected. The more the students treated the “student-teacher” poorly the more distraught the “student-teacher” became. Some students were uncomfortable but continued anyway looking over at me to stop the exercise. Every student participated. I did not have one student not do what I asked them to do. When I did stop the exercise I asked the students what they learned from the lesson and was told – “it’s hard being a teacher.” When I pointed out that they just validated Milgram’s experiment – that people are obedient to an authority figure even if they do not agree with the activity or request. Students were shocked and disappointed in themselves. I did point out that each student may not have done what was told to them if they were alone because another thing we learn in Social Psychology is people will more easily engage in inappropriate behaviors if in a group.
People comply with authority much more than you think – YOU do it almost daily, especially if you work. When you are in a work environment you are told what to do and how to do it. You are given assignments and comply. Sometimes you are told to do something that may be wrong or unethical. You may not even know it is wrong or unethical because you trust the person/people in authority. What if you know or suspect it is wrong? Do you say something or refuse to do it? What if you did say something or choose not to do the requested activity, would you fear the loss of your job or retaliation? These are some tough decisions and obviously must be weighed against what the person/people in authority is/are asking you to do.
Now think about this, why do you think students who have learning disabilities do not receive an appropriate education, denied services, or denied an IEP/504? Do you think it is one individual (teacher, administrator, school psychologist…) who wants to deny this child an opportunity to learn? Most likely it is not a person but a school district itself. Someone in authority has told staff that there can only be a limited number of students in special education, on IEP’s/504, and what services can and cannot be provided. When it comes down to it, schools are businesses and sometimes people who are not on the front lines make decisions that are not conducive to the education of students with learning disabilities. These people make policies and procedures and teachers and administrators follow these even if they are actually violating a student’s rights. Many times teachers and administrators are just doing what they are told to do from the people in the central office. When we really look at it we can see that the ones who are really running the schools are the people in the highest authority. As a parent of a child with a learning disability how many times have you been told by a teacher that know your child is struggling but they can’t say/do anything about it because of the people above them. Many teachers have told parents things only to deny saying these things in meetings because they don’t want to get into trouble with their bosses.
Stanley Milgram said it best with this quote: “Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”
We need to teach our children that they are to be HEROES! As a society we need to support people who are “whistleblowers” instead of condoning companies and even school districts to lead with a culture of “don’t question, just do – because those that question will lose their jobs.” People should not be punished or condemned because they followed the directions of an authority figure especially if they have power and control of their paycheck until we live in a society that values independence and respects people who question the actions of authority figures.
We must also teach our children know they have a voice and to ask those in authority “why” they are being asked to do something. We need to help empower children say “no” if they do not feel something is right. We need to make these changes so our world can be better! Watch the next video and see what it would be like if people felt empowered to stand up to authority!
Finally, here’s one of my heroes, Phil Zimbardo discussing The Psychology of Evil in a 20 minute TED talk. Watch this, learn from it, and put into practice the suggestions he has near the end of his talk.