Why We Should All Question Authority

Why do people succumb to the influence of those with higher authority?

Have you ever wondered how an atrocity like the Holocaust could happen? Were all of the Nazis truly sick and evil? Or, were they being strictly obedient?

If someone of high authority requested you to do something that went against your morals, would you do it? While most of us hope our answer would be “no,” research on human nature shows that a different response would be more likely.

THE MILGRAM EXPERIMENT

In 1963, Stanley Milgram conducted one of the most famous studies of obedience in psychology — the Milgram experiment. The study illuminates how much suffering an ordinary person would be willing to inflict on an entirely innocent person based on following orders. Milgram wanted to test the conflict between obedience to authority and personal morals and conscience. The outcome of his experiment, which seems like something from a nightmare, reveals a frightening truth about human nature.

Milgram created an advertisement in the newspaper looking for males to participate in a study at Yale University. He selected forty male volunteers aged twenty to fifty whose professions varied. Each participant was asked questions to ensure they were sane and mentally healthy.

At the beginning of the experiment, they were introduced to another participant, who was actually a confederate of Milgram and knew the experiment was staged. The volunteers drew straws to determine their roles (learner or teacher), although this part was fixed and the confederate (the person who was “in” on the experiment) was always the “learner” and the volunteer was always the “teacher.” There was also an “experimenter” dressed in a gray lab coat, who was also “in” on the experiment.

Two rooms were used for the experiment: one for the learner, which contained an electric chair, and another for the teacher (volunteer) and the experimenter (authoritative figure in lab coat); this room also contained an electric shock generator that was connected to the electric chair in the other room.

The “learner” was strapped to a chair with electrodes. After he learned a list of word pairs given him to memorize, the “teacher” (one of the forty male volunteers who was NOT “in” on the experiment) tested him by naming a word and asking the learner to recall its partner/pair from a list of four possible choices.

The teacher was instructed by the experimenter to administer an electric shock every time the learner made a mistake, increasing the level of shock each time. There were thirty switches on the shock generator marked from fifteen volts (mild shock) to 450 (dangerously painful shock).

The learner gave mainly wrong answers (purposely) and for each of these the teacher was instructed by the experimenter to give him an electric shock.

Here is where things got interesting.

When the teacher (male volunteer) refused or hesitated to administer a shock, the experimenter essentially said, “Don’t stop. Keep shocking if the learner get’s the answer wrong. You must continue no matter what.”

The “learner” (who was acting and not actually getting shocked) was wailing in “pain,” begging the teacher and experimenter to stop. Yet the experimenter (wearing an authoritative lab coat) ordered the teacher (male participant) to continue shocking the learner despite the fact that he was yelling in what appeared to be tremendous “pain.”

Imagine if you were the volunteer teacher, being ordered to shock the learner because he kept answering incorrectly. Do you think you would have stopped when the learner was begging and screaming in pain? Would you have continued to inflict “pain” on the learner simply because you were being told to do so?

The results of the experiment are profound and disturbing.

66% of the participants pulled all thirty shock switches, up to the highest, most painful shock. Out of all forty participants, not one stopped when the learner (actor in the chair) first begged them to stop.

Despite the clear pain the male participants believed they were inflicting upon the learners, they continued to do so, because they were told to do so by the experimenter (higher authority.)

Why?

Are humans flawed?

What makes us so susceptible to being influenced by those with apparent higher authority?

Milgram believes there is a deep-seated root of duty to authority within all of us. Interestingly enough, Milgram performed another study where volunteers switched roles with the researcher (who instructs the teacher to administer the shock.) Now, with the volunteers in control and ordering the shock, as opposed to being instructed to administer the shock, 100% of the subjects refused to order one additional shock.[2]

Milgram’s takeaway:

“It is the extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority that constitutes the chief finding of the study.”

As kids, we were trained to follow authority. We were taught that disobedience is wrong. From the classroom and children’s books, these lessons are instilled in us from an early age. Respect authority. If they’re above us, don’t question them. They’re right.

At first glance, this respect and willingness to obey authority at all costs makes sense. Authoritative figures convey a sense of superiority that we assume is based on knowledge and experience and access to information that we don’t have, and therefore, we must learn from them.

However, being blindly obedient and complying with an authority figure solely because they have, or appear to have, authority makes zero sense if we ignore the morality and face value of what we’re being instructed to do.

The role of fear and reprisal should also be considered. Obedience can stem from a fear that the person in authority can hurt them or cause them to suffer negative consequences if they don’t obey. For example, using a less intense consequence than torture, your boss may say, “sell these defective air bags or I’ll fire you or demote you and you won’t be able to support your family.” There can be many reasons why people do things they are told to do, even when they know they are the wrong thing to do.

And for another common example, think about medicine. When the average person goes to the doctor, we will do just about anything the doctor says. We bestow our trust in the doctor, because he or she has the qualifications and status to treat us. However, take a look at this example from the book, Medication Errors: Causes and Preventions by Michael Cohen and Neil Davis. A physician ordered eardrops for a patient suffering from an infection in his right ear. Instead of writing out the prescription, the doctor abbreviated the instructions, so the prescription read “R ear.” Upon receiving the prescription, the nurse proceeded to put the ear drops in the patient’s ass. And the patient let the nurse do so!

It is blatantly obvious that the anus is not the place to apply ear drops. However, neither the patient nor the nurse questioned it. The moral of the story? Never trust a doctor. Just kidding. But this example shows how susceptible we are to following commands and authoritative orders, even when they may be blatantly absurd.

TAKEAWAY

From government and healthcare, to earning degrees, titles, and status, authority — and the perception of authority — plays an influential part in our culture. Having the knowledge about this potent aspect of human nature doesn’t mean we should stop respecting and listening to authority. However, knowledge is power if you apply what you know. If you are in a position where an authoritative figure is requesting something that feels wrong or appears to be ridiculous, speak up. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

It’s equally important to acknowledge the old adage: what we permit, we promote. A leader alone cannot create vast change. The power of a movement lies in its followers. If you witness someone else being affected or taken advantage of, stand up and say something. Being a silent bystander only permits whatever is happening to continue. It’s not easy to speak up and risk embarrassing yourself or even putting yourself in harms way. It’s not easy to stand up for something when everyone else is sitting quietly and turning their heads away. It’s not easy to question authority. But it’s up to you and me to question authority when the situation feels off, because if we don’t, who else will?