U-San Bernardino County Sun
A `voice' of authority can supercede moral conviction
Tuesday, May 18, 2004 - Hed: A `voice' of authority can supercede moral conviction
The man in the lab coat, a ``professor'' at a prestigious university, explains the experimental situation to his volunteer: ``That switch, over on the left, gives the subject a mild shock. Each time he makes five or more mistakes, you are required, as a part of the experiment, to increase the voltage by moving to the next switch, to the right of the first one. Now, do you understand what you are supposed to do?''
The middle-aged man, a white-collar professional, nods his head in agreement, and the experiment begins.
Five, and then 10 errors later, he's up to the third switch. The ``subject'' in the room on the other side of the glass window, is seen grimacing, as he moans, complaining, ``That hurt!'' Ten more errors later, and two more switches, the ``subject'' is complaining, ``That's really hurting, I don't think I want to continue anymore.''
The volunteer looks up to the professor, who reassures him that he is doing what he is supposed to do. In sequence, the switches, labeled from ``mild'' to ``extremely strong'' and ending with ``danger … severe shock,'' are all tripped. As the highest levels of ``shock'' are being administered, the volunteer shows obvious signs of distress, pleading with the professor that he doesn't want to increase the punishment, but when told that the professor would accept responsibility for his actions, the man presses the switch anyway.
In 1963 Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram set up an experiment with the same basic design: A volunteer, a team leader and a confederate assigned to sit in a chair and pretend that the shocks administered were real. In this landmark study 65 percent of the male subjects were willing to administer the maximum level of shock to their subjects. Each and every one of the forty men who participated went past the ``extreme'' level before quitting.
``I wouldn't do that,'' most of us would say. Yet, many such social experiments have shown, again and again, that a good many of us would indeed be willing to harm another person if told to do so by someone in apparent authority. In 1971 Stanford psychologist Phillip Zimbardo conducted a study involving volunteer jailers and inmates. The ``experiment'' became so real, the treatment becoming so severe and the consequential psychological distress of the ``inmates'' so evident, that the study was shut down after only six days of the planned fourteen had passed.
Reflecting on recent news detailing the horrific treatment of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers, I am appalled, but not confused. Simply put, there is no satisfactory rationale to justify what has evidently taken place. However, because of the Milgram and the Zimbardo studies and other social research on obedience, coercion and conformity, we are at least partly able to understand how some of our own could have come to believe that what they were doing was acceptable … provided that they really thought they were following orders from someone with greater authority than their own.
These young adult Americans now need help as much as they need discipline and direction. I do not know, but I doubt and I hope that they did not come to serve our country already primed with hatred for their fellow humanity. But rather than point the first finger or toss the first stone, perhaps we might first look inside ourselves, at our tempers and sometimes vengeful ways and focus first on retrofitting our own characters, hoping that, under the duress of similar coercive persuasion, we might have the resilience to resist the temptation to yield the ultimate responsibility for our own acts to any other authority but our own.
Licensed psychologist Allan J. Comeau is former president of the Inland
Southern California Psychological Association. Write to him at 2001 S.
Barrington Ave., Suite 304, Los Angeles, Calif. 90025. E-mail him at
Three Strikes Legal - Index