Friday, November 02, 2012

Only Following Orders

Well, we're two days past Halloween, but there are still scary things out there: Donald Trump, Grover Norquist, Harry Reid, and the Republican and Democratic parties, among other things. Those "other things" include this interesting article from Yahoo News - Bone-Chilling Science: The Scariest Experiments Ever. There are ten such experiments listed, ranging from mind control to accidental black holes, but the scariest, in my humble opinion, is the one titled Deadly Nurses ... which deals with the effect of perceptions of authority on obedience and ethical judgment.

You may have seen a 1976 made-for-television movie titled The Tenth Level, starring William Shatner and based on work done by psychologist Stanley Milgram in 1966. Milgram was interested in the effect of perceptions of authority on obedience, and conducted a series of famous experiments which showed that people would do terrible things to each other as long as they were assured that permission had been granted by some authority figure.

Three years after Milgram's experiment, psychiatrist Charles Hofling wanted to see how obedience influenced decisions when people didn't know they were part of an experiment. In Hofling's experiment, an unknown doctor called nurses working the night shift at a hospital and asked them to administer twice the maximum dose of an unapproved drug to a patient. The nurses did not know that the "medicine" was actually a harmless sugar pill and the doctor was not real. The researchers clearly labeled the "drug," so the nurses knew not only that they were overdosing their patients, but that they were violating hospital regulations by taking instructions over the phone and giving an unapproved medicine.

The scary part: 21 out of 22 nurses complied with the directions of the unknown doctor.

The study clearly showed the degree to which the aura of authority - in this case, instructions from someone claiming to be a doctor - could cloud people's ethical and moral judgments, even when they should have known better.

A classic defense offered by many of the Nazi defendants at the Nuremberg Trials was that they were "only following orders." We sneer at such a weak defense today, and yet experiments such as those conducted by Milgram and Hofling demonstrate the terrifying degree to which ordinary people - who in their hearts know they are doing the wrong thing - will obey orders given by someone in authority, particularly when they are assured that they will not be held responsible for their actions.

This is worth thinking about in a time when people blindly follow hate-filled religious leaders who claim that God sanctions violence against nonbelievers, and charismatic politicians offer ludicrous and unworkable ... but simplistic and appealing ... solutions to complicated economic and social problems.

Election day is just a few days away. Choose wisely. People in authority don't always have your best interests at heart.

Have a good day. Be sure to vote. More thoughts tomorrow.



eViL pOp TaRt said...

Thanks for bringing those experiments up. While cloudy in ethics, they did demonstrate that people would tend to follow what they think are authorities -- failing to understand that the "authorities" might have had questionable motives.

The Solomon Asch experiment that showed people tend to follow a majority opinion despite being at odds with their own perceptions is also relevant.

Kristen Lavransdrittsekkdatter said...

Those experiments should not have been done. We should not have certain people get ideas. On the other hand, it explains Republicans.