The Milgrim Experiment

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At a social event when I was six or seven years old, a girl, who I thought was my friend, told me to hit another girl with a wooden spoon. I had never done something like that, and knew it was absolutely wrong to do so. I said as much, but she persisted, bribing me with candy, and threatening not to be my friend unless I did as she instructed.

Eventually, the pressure was too much, and I gave in, hitting another girl against better knowledge, however tearful and resistant, for the simple reason that someone with a more commanding presence had told me to and I dared not disobey.

Was I at fault for obeying an unjust command? Absolutely!

Was she at fault for issuing it? Yes.

I got in serious trouble (rightly so!), but my “friend” got off scot-free.

One of our own kids had a similar experience recently, and I was reminded of this unpleasant childhood memory. It opened up the opportunity to talk about

  • Who authority comes from,
  • who is allowed to require their obedience (and to what),
  • and why disobedience is not always a bad thing.

Then I told them about the Milgrim Experiment.

Stanley Milgrim, a psychologist from Yale University, was looking for a way to explain how something as horrific as the Holocaust was able to take place. Could the millions of people who were “just following orders” be considered accomplices to genocide?

The participants in Milgrim’s study were men between the ages of 20 and 50 with varying levels of education and a wide range of occupations. The experiment measured how likely they would be to obey an authority figure who instructed them to do something that violated their own conscience.

Believing they were assisting an unrelated experiment, the participants were deputized as “teacher” by the “experimenter” in charge of each session. The “teacher” was required to administer electric shocks to a “learner” until the “learner” grasped a concept. These fake electric shocks gradually increased to levels that would have been fatal if they been real.

The experiment was repeated many times around the world with similar outcomes: shockingly, 65% of people would fully obey instructions, albeit reluctantly, even if it cost another person their life.

Milgrim summarized the experiment in his article “The Perils of Obedience,” which he wrote in 1974:

“The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous importance, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist.

Stark authority was pitted against the participants’ strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the participants’ ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not.

The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.

Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”

Our understanding of what is right and wrong must come from God Himself. His power and holiness demand our obedience, and His Holy Spirit makes it possible.

We must teach our children that compliance itself is not a virtue: integrity is. Doing the right thing with uncompromising honesty and truthfulness, especially in the face of opposition, is superior to obeying an authority that contradicts God’s law.

We cannot have any sense of morality if we do not know what God’s law requires of us; neither can we expect to have the courage to stand up for what’s right if we think ethics are determined by depraved men and women like you and me …just with a little more power.

To the Word! (That’s always the answer, isn’t it?)

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