- Why does a 110 pound Mastiff obey the commands of his 10-year old human master?
- Why 5 guards are able to control 19 prisoners?
- Why a handful of politicians can stop 1.2 Billion Indians from voicing their opinion?
- How a woman soldier is able to humiliate a dozen male Iraqi soldiers at the Abu Gharib prison?
- How a trainer can make 50 intelligent people listen to him or her for 8 hours and give him an A+ on his report card?
It happens because we have the ability to absolve ourselves by shifting the responsibility of our actions to another entity, which may be a person or an organization. We are not responsible for the atrocities that we committed in the Auschwitz concentration camp, said the German soldiers who tortured and killed their captives. We were just doing our jobs. We were just following orders.
The Milgram Obedience Experiment
Stanley Milgram conducted what came to be known as the Milgram Obedience Experiment. In this experiment, perfectly normal people like you and me were assigned the roles of the teacher or the learner. They were separated with an opaque wall, but they could speak to each other. The teacher was given the task to teach the learner some words by asking him/her questions. If the learner responded incorrectly, the teacher would give the learner and electric shock that increased by 15 volts with every incorrect answer. Actually, the learner was replaced by an actor, and he’d not receive the shock but scream nevertheless. To make a long story short, the shocking outcome of the experiment was that there were people who continued giving electrical shocks of upto “450 volts” to their “learner” even after the learner begged for mercy. Why? Because they were asked to do so!
The Stanford Prison Experiment
I was prompted to make this post, after I watched the Adrien Brody – Forest Whitakar movie, “The experiment” yesterday. This movie is based upon another, yet more gruesome experiment called the Stanford Prison Experiment. In this experiment, Philip Zimbardo a psychologist with the Stanford University got together 2 dozen students who had absolutely no criminal record/tendencies for violence, and assigned them either the role of a prisoner or of a guard. They were to stay within the prison walls for 14 days (the initial plan) but the experiment lasted only 6 days. Reason: only after a day, the role-players began to take their roles for real. The “guards” began misusing their authority while the “prisoners” either revolted or turned completely passive. The “guards” ended up torturing the prisoners – and a riot broke out.
It’s obvious that an experiment of this nature was considered immoral and unethical, and never repeated. Yet, it underlined the conclusion of the Milgram Experiment, which was that authority does make people do things that they otherwise won’t do.
The Training Connection – Authority & Obedience
More often than not, I can predict the conversation that would take place, if I were to meet an HOD or a CEO of a company, and discuss instructional design with them. I won’t take you through the entire conversation, but at some point the gentleman or the lady is bound to tell me that his/her training programs have always been such grand successes, despite knowing nothing about this mythological critter called Instructional Design.
Obviously they do. Because they are the authoritarian figure. Nobody’d dare question what they say in their training programs. We the humans are more evolved than our brethren of other species yet we haven’t completely flushed out our pack mentality. We succumb to authority all the time.
On a positive note:
Classroom trainers can use their authority to really reach their audience. They know that their authority allows them to steer the discussions and the lectures; and that their trainees don’t have an option but to accept your authority. Now you can either misuse the authority the way those “guards” in the Standford prison experiment did, or you can use it productively. The trainees are your sheep and you are the shepherd.
Do read about the two experiments. The Wikipedia links that I gave above are portals to more details on these experiments, so please explore them.