Leaving Home Obedience to Authority / War in Iraq by Ness Mountain
In 1962, psychologist Stanley Milgram directed a series of experiments. His question: how far will the average person be willing to go, if given directions by an authority figure? Would they be willing to harm or even kill another person, if they believed that someone else had the ultimate responsibility?
In the experiments, two subjects were recruited. They were told the experiment would determine the effects of punishment on memory and learning. One would be the “teacher”, one would be the “learner”. The roles appeared to be chosen randomly, but in fact, the “learner” was really an actor. The drawing was rigged, and the “teacher” was the unsuspecting experimental subject. The researcher who gave them directions acted as the authority figure.
The learner was strapped down to a shock device, and given buttons to push indicating his answers. The teacher was set up in the other room: a series of levers showed voltages from 15 to 450, labeled “Mild” through “Danger: Extremely Severe”. Whenever the learner answered incorrectly, the teacher was instructed to give a shock of progressively higher voltage to the learner.
I watched a video of the experiments. Each subject (again, the “teacher” is the subject of the experiment) believes that he is giving real shocks to the “learner”. As the shocks become more intense, the learner begins to complain. He says he has a heart condition. He refuses to continue. If the teacher expresses concern about this to the researcher, the researcher tells the teacher that he must continue. The shocks are not dangerous, the researcher says, and besides, he takes full responsibility. The researcher insists until the teacher has refused four times in a row.
At 150 volts, the learner demands to be let go. During the next several questions—unless the teacher refuses to continue—the learner screams and says they have no right to keep him there. After 300 volts, he is silent.
Sixty-five percent of subjects continued all the way to 450 volts. Subjects argued with the researcher. They sweated; they laughed nervously; they said that they wanted to stop. They asked the researcher to look in on the now silent learner. They kept pushing the levers.
When they learned that the whole thing was a set-up, and they saw the learner alive and well, they were relieved. Their justifications for their own participation in the punishment of the learner were telling. “I did stop,” insisted one man, when asked why he continued, “But he told me to keep going. I didn’t like to do that. At least go check on him, I said. But he wouldn’t.”
Milgram tried variations on the experiments. When teacher and learner are in the same room, he found, obedience was reduced, but not eliminated. When the teacher is required to press the learner’s hand down on the shock plate, it was further reduced. Most significant to me is the variation where the subject doesn’t push the switch: another actor does it. The subject only has to read the questions. In this case,compliance went up over ninety percent.
Today, we are all subjects in an obedience experiment. As in Milgram’s last variation, the victims are far away, and all that is required of us is that we go along with the punishment. But this time, the person is really dying. We will be dropping real bombs. There will be no relief at the end, when we find that we haven’t really killed anyone: only the crowing of the killers, the nervous laughter, the extra drink in the evening. I’m speaking, of course, of our attack on Iraq, planned for the spring.
Subjects who made it all the way to 450 volts went into a kind of trance. They had chosen their path, unpleasant as it was, or they had let it be chosen for them, and they finished as quickly as they could. There was less arguing.
That’s the state of America today. We are more biddable than usual, as, heads down, we line up to be counted. With characteristic shamelessness, our leaders are taking the opportunity to bust the federal unions, tear down forests, tear up guarantees of due process, create a secret police. But it’s only a matter of time till it’s all over …it must be…if we hang on just a little longer it’ll be done with.
There was one more variation. When the subject was paired with another “teacher” who refused to shock the “learner”, obedience was greatly reduced. The example of another person standing on principle made it easier to disobey.
A few strong voices are needed, even if they tremble with the effort of going against the flow. Will you raise yours?
Ness Mountain is a counselor and urban shaman living in Portland. Comments on Leaving Home are welcome. Email Ness at <[email protected]>.with your comments on this article