In 1961, Yale psychologist, Stanley Milgram, developed an experiment to test how people would react to authority. In his test, he set up a device that simulated an electric shock that was delivered to people (“learner”) who incorrectly answered questions that were asked by a “teacher”. The “teacher” was actually the test subject and the person being shocked was an actor who suffered no damage because there was no actual shock.
As the “learner” answered each question incorrectly, the “teacher”would increase the power of the shock. At 150 volts, the “learner” began to cry out that he had a heart problem and he wasn’t feeling well. At that point, the test subject had a choice to continue despite the increasing complaints or to stop despite incessant urging from the person leading the experiment who sat right next to them.
An entire 45 minute documentary can be found here. To save you a little time, I’ll tell you that 65% of the “teachers” (26 of 40) went all the way to 450 volts despite the cries of the “learner”. So, they continued to inflict pain on another human being for the sole reason that an authority figure told them to do so.
Of course, there were a lot of questions about the ethics of this experiment and that the all of the test subjects were white men, but, hey, that was the 1960’s for you. But it does make one ponder the impact of authority over a person and whether or not they will give up their morality, their sense of right and wrong, if they are told to do so. Obvious connections to Nazi soldiers were made in this experiment which was actually the point to begin with.
In this day and age, are we subject to the same drive – to please an authority figure to the degree that we would shun responsibility for hurting another human being?
In 2006, there was the famous Mount Washington Strip Search scam where a prank caller called a fast food restaurant posing as a police office and convinced a pair of adults to strip search a teenager and then engage in sexual molestation. The adults never even saw the actual person giving them instructions to demean and abuse this underage girl, yet they did it anyway.
Now, expand that a thousand-fold and think to yourself how similar distasteful and potentially illegal acts could be performed by unwilling people if they were commanded by a President or other elected official. How about if someone like the Pope or some other high-ranking religious official told you to do something you would normally find abhorrent? Would you toss away your own personal morals and ethics to please that authority figure?