A Milgram Meter

According to Wikipedia, the Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures was a series of social psychology experiments conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram. They measured the willingness of study participants, men from a diverse range of occupations with varying levels of education, to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts conflicting with their personal conscience; the experiment found, unexpectedly, that a very high proportion of people were prepared to obey, albeit unwillingly, even if apparently causing serious injury and distress.

Milgram devised his psychological study to answer the popular question at that particular time: “Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?” The experiments have been repeated many times in the following years with consistent results within differing societies, although not with the same percentages around the globe.

Welcome to our new Milgram Experiment, writ large. I don’t believe it is much of a stretch of the imagination to assign roles. Who is the main person in the lab coat — the purported authority figure? Who are his assistants? The most important and compelling question is, who are we in this experiment? How we will act in 2017? Have we learned anything since 1961, the date of the experiment. Or 1933, the start of the Holocaust?

Moral decisions do not necessarily present themselves in neatly packaged forms nor at expected times like a Christmas holiday package. No, we can be faced with issues unexpectedly, by unanticipated parties, in unplanned situations. Welcome to a reality where norms of behavior, social contracts might be thrown out the window. That could be interesting, entertaining. Or not. It could be absolutely frightening and require the best of us.

And for those that will be real life participants in the shock room, and for whom the pain will be real, this is not a speculative experiment. It is their life. Perhaps being raised a devout Catholic has influenced my thinking, or perhaps 20 plus years in the nonprofit sector has muddied my brain, but I remain confused by the lack of understanding and empathy relative to the potential impact of various policy decisions that are currently being considered. Certainly, as a leader that has hired and fired staff, I am fully aware that difficult decisions must be made, the world is unfair, fiscal prudence is a value. I guess I just don’t understand inflicting pain when not necessary, nor bullies, nor intentionally dishing out BullS##t for personal aggrandizement.

So, as we enter a new year, who will be willing to compromise their integrity and join deferential the masses of the Milgram Experiment? We will learn much about our political leadership, ourselves — next year.

In your personal life, I can only assume you value integrity, courage, compassion, kindness. So.

• How will you act with integrity in this moment?
• How will you act with courage in this moment?
• How will you act with compassion in this moment?
• How will you act with kindness in this moment?

In your professional life, how will do you the same? In your civic life? During the course of the year, I intend to revisit this question and keep a Milgram Meter, tracking those in public life, elected officials and such, and how have they responded to that fraudulent figure parading around in a white lab coat.