“More hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion.” - C.F. Snow
It really is one of the greatest practical (pragmatic) jokes in all of Psychology; indeed it was inspired by the original --you know...the one they call God or Allah and such in them perennial bestsellers: “The Bible”, “The Koran”, etc.
Obedience to authority is considered by many Sociologists and Social Psychologists to be vital aspect of a healthy society. Indeed, every known society in human history has developed hierarchical structures in which some people have been granted authority over others. Traditionally teachers, for example, have authority over their students, school administrators have authority over teachers, and government education officials exercise authority over school administrators. Workers obey supervisors, enlisted soldiers obey their officers. It is, in fact, difficult for many to see how society could operate any other way.
Still, we are all aware that are times when authority and private conscience don't “quite jive”. Indeed, one of the oldest conflicts in philosophy and religion revolves around this very issue.
Abraham, commanded by God to kill his beloved son Isaac, was placed in a conflict between his love of his son and his obedience to God --and how about that Greek legend of Antigone with a similar conflict involving the love of a brother and the demands of the state huh?
Even today we often find it unclear when to follow our conscience and when to submit to authority.
Should soldiers always obey orders? Most of us seem to believe they should. But what happens when such orders require that they kill innocent civilians?
Obedience to authority is, of course, an a form of conformity.
Once a phenomena has been classified as an example of conformity,of course,it will inevitably be studied (dissected, etc.) in a Psychology Laboratory.
WHAT FOLLOWS IS NOT THE STORY OF STANLEY MILGRAM’S CLASSIC EXPERIMENT in which a conflict is established between a subject’s moral beliefs the demands of authority.
Stanley Milgram was born in 1933 in New York City. He grew up during the Second World War and began studying Psychology at a time when Nazi atrocities were still fresh in everyone's mind. After attending a public high school he took a bachelor’s degree at Queens College. While at Queens College he received a Ford Foundation fellowship to pursue postgraduate study at Harvard University. Milgram received a doctorate from Harvard in 1960 and taught there for several years. In the early 1960’s Milgram moved to Yale University where he classic experiment was conducted.
In the years following the Second World War, Social Psychologists conducted numerous studies on the personality traits of Germans. These studies were supposed to have shown that Germans have authoritarian traits and are therefore more likely to obey the wishes of others.
These studies were offered as explanations for German war crimes.
I am not going to discuss any of these studies. I am also not going to discuss Milgram’s famous experiment which showed that obedience to authority is not nearly such a simple and ridiculous matter --those so interested can easily find all of this material through independent study, and needn't have me waste their time retelling the story. I will offer as a “consolation prize” however, a photograph of the classic apparatus that was used in the experiment…
The brief study which I wish to discuss came about as a result of criticisms of Milgram’s research as being “artificial” --that his depressing results would never be obtained under more natural; non-laboratory conditions.
The specific experiment (conducted in the early 1980’s) is amazingly simple, quickly described, easily understood, and, most importantly, FAR MORE TERRIFYING:
Nurses on duty, (selected at random) in several different teaching hospitals, including Harvard, Yale and Princeton received a telephone call from a physician whom they had never met. The physician gave their name and said that they had been in to see one of the patients on the nurse’s ward earlier that day. The physician said they would return later but would like the patient to receive medication before the return visit. The physician asked the nurse to check the medicine cabinet to see if it contained the drug “Astroten”. The nurse checked the cabinet and found a box labeled:
- 5 mg capsules
- Usual dose 5 mg
- MAXIMUM DAILY DOSE: 10 mg
When the nurse returned to the phone the physician instructed the nurse to give the patient 25 milligrams of Astroten. The physician said that they would be there within the next hour to sign the order but would like the drug administered IMMEDIATELY. An observing staff physician terminated the experiment after noting the nurse’s behavior.
The physician’s request violated several hospital rules. Not only was the amount prescribed more than twice the maximum daily dose, medication orders were not permitted by telephone. Furthermore, the medication was not on the hospital list of approved drugs and it was ordered by someone the nurse did not know.
Nevertheless, 95 percent of the nurses contacted started to administer the medication...German ancestry was not a covariant of any significance.
© Gerald Hecht, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Gerald Hecht with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.