Blind Obedience to Authority

Posted: November 8, 2013 in Education, Humanity


Milgram’s Experiment (pictured above)

I apologize for my consistent references to Golding’s Lord of the Flies, but it happens to be the cornerstone novel used in my grade 10 English literature course. In my opinion, without the novel there is no course.

Eventually, I draw in some theory work to help explain portions of the novel and put some character actions into perspective. For instance, I show my class the video of Stanley Milgram’s experiment from the early 1960’s on Blind Obedience to Authority. In his experiment, three individuals are involved at one time: The experimenter (Milgram), the “teacher” (a volunteer), and the “student” (another ‘volunteer’ who is working with Milgram). Essentially, Milgram asked a number of volunteers (ranging in age and occupation) to be part of an experiment testing the effects of shock therapy (a lie!) – these volunteers would be made the “teacher.” In this fake experiment (unbeknownst to the “teacher” volunteer), the teacher is given a list of word pairs to read aloud to the “student” volunteer who is behind a partition. If the student gets the word correct, the teacher moves on, but if the student answers incorrectly, the teacher is to administer a shock, which grow in intensity each time.

What the teacher doesn’t know is that the shocks are fake and that the student behind the partition is in on the experiment working with Milgram. Moreover, the student is getting the word pairs incorrect on purpose. Therefore, the fake experiment tests to see of the shock (punishment) will help the student learn the word pairs faster. The REAL experiment is on the teacher. Despite the fact that the student is yelling to stop (fake recorded yells from behind the partition), how much longer will the teacher continue on with the experiment and continue shocking?

Shockingly (no pun intended), 65% of participants continue on and finish the experiment despite the yells to cease. I should mention that many of the participants wished to stop, but Milgram uses four phrases to entice them to continue. (1) Please continue (2) The experiment requires that you continue (3) It is absolutely essential that you continue (4) You have no other choice, you must go on.

Teachers showed a great deal of nervousness by sweating, biting their nails, laughing (in some cases), and fidgeting.

The connection to Lord of the Flies is that eventually some of the stranded boys end up following through on orders from Jack without truly understanding why they are doing it. For instance, they tie up a young boy, Wilfred, on Jack’s orders. Robert tells Roger that Jack wishes to torture Wilfred later and when Roger asks why, Robert responds: “I don’t know. He [Jack] didn’t say.” (Golding, 176). So, the question remains, how far will we go to injure someone simply because we are told to? Does it matter the type of threat we’re under OR how big the person is giving the order OR if the person giving the order is male or female?

It makes me think: If I were watching Jesus’ crucifixion at Golgotha, would I have the courage to step forward to the Romans and stop it despite putting my own life in danger? If I were Albert Speer watching the exterminations in World War II, would I have the courage to stand up to Hitler at the risk of my own life? To be honest, probably not. Where do our morals go in the face of great intimidation and fear? I would certainly be fidgeting, biting my nails, and sweating watching the crucifixion or extermination, yet continuing to watch and not wanting to put my own life in jeopardy. What does that say about me, and most likely, you?


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