I'll never forget a conversation I had about a year ago regarding the Nazi Death camps of World War II. An older gentleman was out for his afternoon coffee outing, and was seated just a few feet from me in the Hy-Vee Deli, a local grocery store in Trenton, Missouri.
After a segment on the Holocaust had just finished on the T.V. in the deli, he growled, "That was some hellacious and unthinkable stuff those damn Germans did to the Jews!" I won't argue with that; it's hard to imagine that many people being murdered in such a short time." I replied.
The old man shot back, "It's an evil human being, no the brother of the devil himself that could do such a thing." No doubt expecting me to agree with him again, he stiffened as he listened to my comeback.
"Not as evil as you think." I said. "I'm guessing there are 100 people shopping in this store at the moment, I'm betting that under similar circumstances; at least 50% of them would have followed the orders to do the very same reprehensible acts that the German soldiers did!"
"You must be out of your friggen mind!" he said in a loud voice. I calmly said "One would like to think so, wouldn't they? Unfortunately though, there's a pile of research, and some landmark studies that say otherwise."
Over the next 30 minutes, I gently and carefully presented the information that I had based my comments on, and interestingly enough, he was not only becoming calmer, but instead scratched his head saying, "I'll be damned kid, who would have guessed? Who would have guessed?"
Are you wondering what I could have possibly said to not only defuse the anger this man was rapidly starting to generate, but actually opened his mind enough to get him to consider the possibility, that it really doesn't take a black hearted human being like Jeffery Dahmer to be able do such horrible things to others? Here it comes.
In 1963, Stanley Milgrim stood the field of psychology on its head. In this famous study, Milgrim wanted to observe the tendency of people to obey authority figures. Milgrim was troubled by how quickly the German citizens had followed the orders of Adolf Hitler, to do things like brutally slaughter millions of Jews.
Milgrim's study involved telling the participants that they would be assisting him in studying the effects of learning; more specifically, the effects of punishment on learning.
At the lab, they drew pieces of paper to see who would be the "teacher" or the "learner." Little did they know that it was rigged so that they would all be in the role of "teacher?"
The "learner" (who was secretly working with Milgrim, and posed as a student) would be strapped into a chair that could deliver shocks when they made a mistake on the test. They would be seated in another room, out of view from the "teachers" but close enough they could be heard. The "electric chair", while looking very real, could not deliver a shock at all…it was all a set up.
Soon after the "learning experiment" had begun, the "learners" started making mistakes (as they had secretly been instructed to) on the test they were taking. Each time a mistake was made, the researcher would instruct the "teacher" to administer a shock. Although the "voltage" used started out at rather harmless levels, within a few mistakes the "voltage" had been dialed up to 300 volts. At this intensity, the "learners" were yelling in anger and pounding on the walls.
It was at this point that the "teachers" would begin looking to the research person who was running things for guidance, after having been asked to deliver yet another shock, but at a higher "voltage."
Each time they would seek advice or support, the researcher firmly suggested that they go ahead and give a more powerful shock to the "learner."
By the time each "teacher" was told to stop, the "voltage" administered had gone all the way up to 450 volts; this is a voltage that clearly had the potential to kill the "learners." At "450 volts" the "learners" were screaming bloody murder, and begging for their lives.
Now, here is where it becomes mind blowing; 26 of the 40 "teachers" in the study delivered all 30 levels of shock!
Many of those who delivered all 30 shocks felt a great deal of distress about what they were doing…but they did it anyway. Stanley Milgrim had discovered that the power of authority was far more powerful than he could have ever suspected.
Were those who delivered the "painful" shocks to those who were begging for mercy social outcasts and degenerates? Far from it. They were students; these were people who were on the honor roll, or were rated as being very likable and generous citizens.
Just in case you're wondering, yes, this study has been repeated numerous times, and the results were always the same.
How do we explain such behavior? Milgrim concluded that when others feel pressure of a sufficient strength from an authority figure, it can make very normal and decent people do very abnormal and horrible things. He further concluded that evil actions may not necessarily have to come from an evil person.
Finally, and perhaps most frightening, Milgrim concluded that under the right circumstances, and in the right situation, any of us might obey orders to maim, injure, or even kill another human being.
Do you think the some 900 people the Rev. Jim Jones ordered to drink poisoned Kool-Aid were just stupid? Not a chance. The Law of Authority was alive and well in Guyana in 1978. I'll never forget watching as a twelve year old child, as the evening news showed the overhead photos of hundreds of bloated bodies stacked upon one another.
The news anchor suggested that preliminary reports indicated that they may have willingly poisoned themselves; it was just too much for my young mind to comprehend. "Why on earth would you do what someone told you, if you knew it was going to kill you?" I wondered.
Do you think your kids are smart enough to not take drugs when a stranger offers them? Let's hope so. However, it's not strangers we have to worry about. See, when my parents warned me about the "bad" things in life, I always had this image of some surly and ragged looking bum, someone I could clearly see as someone I shouldn't trust, as being the kind of person that would eventually offer me psychedelic mushrooms, so I could take a "magic carpet ride."
But that's not how it happens is it? No, the "bum" often turns out to be a trusted friend, or someone we have known for sometime. Worse yet, it may be someone who we see as an authority figure. For a freshman in high school, a senior on the Football team may be viewed as an authority figure for some kids; it doesn't have to be a middle aged man with a badge for the Law of Authority to prevail.
In conclusion, it does not require an evil person, to do an evil thing; Just the right environment and people. It may also be wise to familiarize yourself and your family with this phenomenon. Teaching your children to always obey their elders, may not be the best advice we can give.
I'll elaborate more on how we can inoculate our young ones against those who would use the power of the Law of Authority for ill conceived plans in an upcoming article.