For those interested in the science behind authoritarian sociopathy no studies are more poignant, or more chilling in their ramification than the Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment. But their sentiment was perhaps best expressed by Thomas Jefferson in an often overlooked passage of the Declaration of Independence:
"All experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed."
After World War II the world stood in shock and horror as the details of the Holocaust came to light. Jew, Gypsies, Homosexuals and virtually anyone deemed an enemy of the state were put to death by the Nazis. The constant, even robotic refrain from these soldiers during the Nuremberg Trials was "I was just following orders." And as the world cried, "Never again!" Stanley Milgram, a Yale University psychologist asked, "how did this happen in the first place?" The Milgram Experiment was designed to measure the willingness of otherwise psychologically healthy people to obey the unethical orders of an authority figure. His shocking results were published in his 1974 book, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (Perennial Classics)
In the Milgram Experiment participants were divided into "teachers" and "learners" and placed in separate rooms. They could communicate, but could not see each other. The experimenter instructed the "teachers" to read questions to the "learner" and if they answered incorrectly to administer an elecro-shock of ever increasing voltage. Unknown to the "teachers" was that the "learners" were actually plants and the electro-shocks were fake. The "teachers" were the actual subjects in the experiment. After a few volt increases the "learner" began to object, to bang on the walls, and complain about a heart condition. After some time the the "learner" would go silent. If the subject asked to stop the experiment for any reason he was given a succession of verbal prods by the experimenter to continue. "Please continue," "the experiment requires that you continue" "you must continue," etc. Most continued after being told that they would not be held responsible.
Of the experiment subjects 65% administered the experiment's maximum massive 450-volt shock even though every subject expressed some level of objection in doing so. Some began to laugh nervously. Others offered to refund the money they were paid for participating in the experiment. Some exhibited signs of extreme stress once they heard the screams of pain coming from the learner. But the vast majority were willing to administer a lethal jolt of electricity to a complete stranger based upon nothing but the verbal prodding of a scientist in a lab coat. None of those who refused to administer the deadly shock insisted that the experiment itself be terminated.
The Stanford Prison Experiment was a study conducted by Stanford University psychology professor Philip Zimbardo to determine the psychological effects of prison life. Participants were screened to be otherwise stable and psychologically healthy and assigned randomly as either "prisoner" or "guard" to live in a two week long prison simulation in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. Guards were given uniforms, mirrored glasses to prevent eye contact, and wooden batons meant only to establish status. Prisoners were dressed in smocks and addressed only by the numbers they were issued. Guards were instructed only to keep a fixed schedule, and that they should attempt to make the prisoners feel powerless, but could not physically harm them.
The experiment was halted after only six days.
After a prisoner revolt on the second day guards began to display cruel, even sadistic behavior. A system of punishment and reward soon followed including, spraying disobedient prisoners with fire extinguishers, depriving them of bedding or restroom privileges, forcing them to go nude and locking them in "solitary confinement" in a dark closet. After the initial revolt, and a brief hunger strike, prisoners on the other hand developed submissive attitudes, accepting physical abuse, and readily following orders from the "guards" to inflict punishments on each other. They even engaged in horizontal discipline to keep each other in line. One prisoner began showing signs of mental breakdown after only 36 hours, yet they stayed even though they were all made aware that they could stop the experiment at any time. As Zimbardo explained, both prisoners and guards had fully internalized their new identities.
Zimbardo ultimately halted the experiment when he realized that his judgment had been compromised by being sucked in to his role as "Prison Superintendent" and allowed abuse to continue that could be considered torture. His recent book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil details his findings and how they relate to the torture and prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.
Ethical concerns raised by these results have made it illegal to repeat these experiments. In fact, under current ethical guidelines the State makes it very difficult to study the psychology of power and authority at all.
What is clear to me from these experiments is that human nature is not evil, but essentially adaptive. If you take an otherwise good person and invent for them a role that incentivizes evil they will adjust to their new circumstances. And if you internalize "obedience to authority" as a core personality trait you will become capable of the worst forms of murder, and tolerant of the worst forms of abuse.
Article by David Barker who writes for the Examiner from San Francisco. This article originally appeared as a part 1 of a 4 part article series.