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Happy Birthday Hitler! Or, Avoiding the “Just Following Orders” Trap

Yesterday, we passed the birthday of Adolf Hitler (April 20, 1889). So let’s take a moment to reflect, something that becomes increasingly important as the memory of his infamous reign grows further and further into the past. But why should we care, in a blog about the art of making choices, about remembering Hitler?

Could it happen here?

One of the most famous—or infamous as the case may be—experiments in all of psychology was a direct response to World War II and the Nazi death camps. In setting up his study of obedience, Stanley Milgram wanted to answer the question: could it happen here? Or rather, he wanted to make the point: It couldn’t happen here. He was hoping to show, by a demonstration at Yale University, and later, in the New Haven community, that good old Americans would be incapable of the type of cruelty that had transpired in Germany just two decades years earlier. So, he brought people into a lab and explained to them that they would be working with another subject (actually a confederate of the experimenter) and that one of them (always the actual participant) would be the teacher, and the other (always the confederate) would be the learner. The learner would be hooked up to a machine that could administer electric shocks, and it would be up to the teacher to administer the shocks if the learner answered a question incorrectly. With every incorrect answer, the strength of the shock had to be increased by one notch (a note to those unfamiliar with the experiment: The machine was a fake. It looked real and the study participant had every reason to believe it was real, but no shocks were ever actually administered). That was the general set-up. A few additional points bear mention: The shock settings had labels, ranging from green to red, with the end of the scale marked clearly as being of potentially lethal strength; the “learner” informed both the experimenter and the study participant at the start that he had a heart condition; and the learner had a specific script, developed by Milgram, whereby he would make mistakes at given intervals, and would also react to the shocks vocally.

Alas, it could: Obedience as a mindless response

So, what happened? Contrary to Milgram’s expectations, nearly all participants not only administered the shocks, but kept administering them into the red zone, many to the end of the scale. True, many were highly uncomfortable, and asked if they could stop; but when the experimenter said a single sentence, to the effect that the experiment required that they continue, they pressed on. They administered shocks through grunts and screams of pain, through the learner begging to stop and mentioning again his heart condition, and through silence, when, after a certain point, the learner both stopped responding to the learning questions and stopped making any sound at all.

What had started as a study in showing that Americans were not capable of high cruelty turned into the classic demonstration of obedience. We, too, would follow orders, and would say in retrospect that we had just been following orders to justify acts of tremendous cruelty (after all, participants may well have killed the learner, and would have certainly caused him great pain if the machine had been real). There were many versions of this study, with the learner in the same room, in different rooms, meeting the participant, not meeting the participant, touching the participant, or altogether removed, and in all versions, the effect remained. And while many things were wrong with the study, the general phenomenon has been replicated many times, in many settings, some as recently as this year.

Could we avoid falling for Milgram? A mindful answer

But there’s a silver lining. In every case, there was at least one participant who refused to go on – or, in some cases, to even administer the first shock. Why? While I am sure everyone had a different rationale, I am willing to bet that every single one stopped and asked himself what he was doing and why he was doing it, instead of just following experimental directions. In other words, he reframed his role as involving a series of specific choices—am I willing to administer a shock to another human being in the first place, or not? Do I administer a shock at a given point and at a given level, or not? Do I keep administering the shock, or do I stop?—for which he and he alone was responsible, and then, he made a decision. He did not just listen to the experimenter telling him to continue and then mindlessly do so.

And that, perhaps, is one real way to ensure that we do not fall into a trap from which it will be difficult to escape, the trap of mindlessly following instructions and going through a series of actions without stopping for a moment to reflect on what those instructions and actions actually entail. Stop, reflect, and only then decide how to act, all the while remaining in full possession of that decision. We have to realize that everything is a choice. I know this is far, far easier said than done, but at the very least, bringing a fully aware approach to everything is a first step to avoiding the Milgram Effect. Mindfulness is the enemy of unthinking obedience.


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