Two landmark studies in the 1960s and ’70s put behavioral psychology squarely in the public consciousness. The obedience experiments by Stanley Milgram and the Stanford Prison experiment demonstrated how regular individuals could be made, quite simply, to obey figures in authority and to subject others to humiliation, suffering and pain.
A re-examination of these experiments and several recent similar studies have prompted a number of psychologists to offer a reinterpretation of the original conclusions. They suggest that humans may not be inherently evil after all. However, we remain dangerously flawed — our willingness to follow those in authority, especially in those with whom we identify, makes us susceptible to believing in the virtue of actions that by all standards would be monstrous. It turns out that an open mind able to think critically may be the best antidote.
[div class=attrib]From the Pacific Standard:[end-div]
They are among the most famous of all psychological studies, and together they paint a dark portrait of human nature. Widely disseminated in the media, they spread the belief that people are prone to blindly follow authority figures—and will quickly become cruel and abusive when placed in positions of power.
It’s hard to overstate the impact of Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments of 1961, or the Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971. Yet in recent years, the conclusions derived from those studies have been, if not debunked, radically reinterpreted.
A new perspective—one that views human nature in a more nuanced light—is offered by psychologists Alex Haslam of the University of Queensland, Australia, and Stephen Reicher of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
In an essay published in the open-access journal PLoS Biology, they argue that people will indeed comply with the questionable demands of authority figures—but only if they strongly identify with that person, and buy into the rightness of those beliefs.
In other words, we’re not unthinking automatons. Nor are we monsters waiting for permission for our dark sides to be unleashed. However, we are more susceptible to psychological manipulation than we may realize.
In Milgram’s study, members of the general public were placed in the role of “teacher” and told that a “learner” was in a nearby room. Each time the “learner” failed to correctly recall a word as part of a memory experiment, the “teacher” was told to administer an electrical shock.
As the “learner” kept making mistakes, the “teacher” was ordered to give him stronger and stronger jolts of electricity. If a participant hesitated, the experimenter—an authority figure wearing a white coat—instructed him to continue.
Somewhat amazingly, most people did so: 65 percent of participants continued to give stronger and stronger shocks until the experiment ended with the “learner” apparently unconscious. (The torture was entirely fictional; no actual shocks were administered.)
To a world still reeling from the question of why so many Germans obeyed orders and carried out Nazi atrocities, here was a clear answer: We are predisposed to obey authority figures.
The Stanford Prisoner Experiment, conducted a few years later, was equally unnerving. Students were randomly assigned to assume the role of either prisoner or guard in a “prison” set up in the university’s psychology department. As Haslam and Reicher note, “such was the abuse meted out to the prisoners by the guards that the study had to be terminated after just six days.”
Lead author Philip Zimbardo, who assumed the role of “prison superintendent” with a level of zeal he later found frightening, concluded that brutality was “a natural consequence of being in the uniform of a guard and asserting the power inherent in that role.”
So is all this proof of the “banality of evil,” to use historian Hannah Arendt’s memorable phrase? Not really, argue Haslam and Reicher. They point to their own work on the BBC Prison Study, which mimicked the seminal Stanford study.
They found that participants “did not conform automatically to their assigned role” as prisoner or guard. Rather, there was a period of resistance, which ultimately gave way to a “draconian” new hierarchy. Before becoming brutal, the participants needed time to assume their new identities, and internalize their role in the system.
Once they did so, “the hallmark of the tyrannical regime was not conformity, but creative leadership and engaged followership within a group of true believers,” they write. “This analysis mirrors recent conclusions about the Nazi tyranny.”
[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]