Updated: Nov 24, 2022
Writer: Nujen Yuksel
Can people always make the same decision under different circumstances? Do we always choose the same course of action when we are angry or sad? Does a judge, for instance, make the same decisions under different moods? Or, return to the main question, are decisions made in the presence of authority the same as those we would make in the absence of it? These are questions that have been wondered about for years and deserve to be answered.
Consider the most hated leaders whose names are recalled after brutality and the soldiers who work under such leaders and followed their commands to slaughter hundreds and thousandsof people. Interestingly enough, the soldiers who killed hundreds of people did not display characteristics indicative of guilt which is quite perplexing considering their situation. Furthermore, the soldiers who did not appear to be affected by what they had done defended themselves by emphasizing that they had merely obeyed the commands of authority, and hence what they had done was not deliberately made.
Adolf Eichmann was one of those soldiers. During the Second World War, Adolf Eichmann who was among the main organizers of the Holocaust oversaw the mass expulsion of Jews to ghettos and concentration camps. His letter was a petition for clemency, which was denied, and he was hanged two days later in an Israeli prison (1). Eichmann claimed that he was just following the orders as stated in his letter ‘There is a need to draw a line between the leaders responsible and the people like me forced to serve as mere instruments in the hands of the leaders… I was not a responsible leader, and as such do not feel myself guilty.’ (5)
A fundamental question was raised, particularly in the aftermath of this letter: could Eichmann be right, or how many of the decisions we made were entirely made within our own volition? Stanley Milgram, a Yale University psychologist, devised a series of social psychology experiments examining obedience to authoritative people in July 1961, concurrently with Eichmann's trial, demonstrably relating this study to the Holocaust:
"Obedience, as a determinant of behavior, is of particular relevance to our time. It has been reliably established that from 1933-45 millions of innocent persons were systematically slaughtered on command. Gas chambers were built, death camps were guarded, and daily quotasof corpses were produced with the same efficiency as the manufacture of appliances. These inhumane policies may have originated in the mind of a single person, but they could only be carried out on a massive scale if a very large number of persons obeyed orders." (4)
Participants in Milgram's 1963 study (and subsequent modifications of the studies) were volunteers from a range of backgrounds who responded to a newspaper advertisement. Respondents were informed that the purpose of the experiment was to investigate how punishment impacts a person's ability to learn. They were given a small monetary prize for their participation. Although respondents thought they had an equal chance of playing either the student or the teacher, the approach was set up such that everyone ended up playing the instructor. The learner, the cohort of the experimenter, was a performance.
Despite demonstrating signs of strain, a large proportion of the 'teachers' gave the electric shocks across the experiments. As the tests went on, these protocols, arrangements, and settings were altered in a number of numerous ways. However, the outcomes were consistently comparable and consistent with what was discovered in the initial investigation. When the further hoax that the "learner" had a bad heart was introduced in one modified version of the experiment, and when he started to shout and scream about pains in his chest, it made absolutely no difference(6). In that experiment, nearly two-thirds of the "teachers" or subjects kept pressing away at 450 volts(2,3). 65 percent continued to press the switches. (2)
Milgram argued for the agentic condition, in which a person no longer holds oneself accountable for their acts, but rather as a tool for carrying out the demands of others. This means that someone who enters an authoritative structure "comes to consider himself as an agent for fulfilling the wishes of another person and no longer views himself/ herself as acting outof his own purpose. Once a person views their actions in this way, profound behavioral changes take place.
Stanley Milgram published his report including a laboratory study in which he evaluated ordinary people's sense of loyalty and devotion to persons whom they regard as authorities, despite the fact that these authorities have no capacity to punish or reward them in any way, in 1963. His research's conclusions have been used to support the idea that even disobedient and common people will submit to authority, and this idea has been used to enucleate the Nazis' conduct during the Holocaust.
In conclusion, Milgram's experiment showed us that we tend to make different decisions under different situations according to our mood or even the pressure of the superior figure. Furthermore, this experiment confronted us with the fact that under certain conditions we can do even things that we thought we could never do, or that we thought someone would never do.
1. Farmer C. ‘They were just following orders’. IOE - Faculty of Education and Society.https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ioe/research-projects/2022/jan/they-were-just-following-orders.Published 2021. Accessed January 21, 2021.
2. Encina G. Milgram's Experiment on Obedience to Authority. Nature.berkeley.edu.https://nature.berkeley.edu/ucce50/ag-labor/7article/article35.htm. Published 2004. AccessedNovember 15, 2004.
3. Marcus S. Obedience to Authority An Experimental View. By Stanley Milgram. illustrated. 224 pp. New York: Harper & (Published 1974). Nytimes.com. https://www.nytimes.com/1974/01/13/archives/obedience-to-authority-an-experimental-view.html. Published 1974. Accessed January 13, 1974.
4. Thompson K. Milgram’s Obedience Experiment – Strengths and Limitations. ReviseSociology.https://revisesociology.com/2017/06/15/milgram-experiment-phsychology-evaluation/. Published2017. Accessed June 15, 2017.
5. Barajas J. How Nazi's Defense of "Just Following Orders" Plays Out in the Mind. ScientificAmerican. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-nazi-s-defense-of-just-following-orders-plays-out-in-the-mind/. Published 2016. Accessed February 19, 2016.
6. Onre M, Holland C. On the ecological validity of laboratory deceptions. Psych.upenn.edu.https://www.psych.upenn.edu/history/orne/orneholland1968ijp282293.html. Published 1968.Accessed November 17, 1968.