Monday, July 30, 2012

Obedience to Authority Isn't Always Good

How many of you remember Stanley Milgram's famous experiments on obedience to authority? Surely everyone that sat through a Psychology 101 class has heard about it.  Stanley Milgram was a psychologist in the 1960's, who was inspired after the trial of the World War II criminal Adolph Eichmann to study how and why people obey authority figures, even when the authority asks them to do something immoral or criminal.  Adolph Eichmann, if you recall, claimed that he was merely following instructions when he ordered the deaths of millions of Jews.  Milgram wondered if it could be true that millions of people were murdered just because otherwise good people were "following orders."

In short, Milgram asked participants to be "teachers" who delivered electric shocks to "students" when they incorrectly answered questions they were given by the researchers.  The participant "teachers" did not know that the "students" were confederates who merely pretended to be shocked.  Milgram found that most participants would continue to deliver shocks even when the student begged to be released, banged their head on the wall, complained of a heart condition, or even when they eventually fell completely silent.  When participants asked whether they should continue, the experimenter would tell the participant to "please continue," "it is absolutely essential that you go on," or something similar.  Astonishingly, 65% of participants delivered the maximum level of shock.

I've thought a lot about this study recently as I've read the memoir of Jaycee Dugard, A Stolen Life, where Jaycee shares that her kidnapper's wife was present for the kidnapping and interacted with Jaycee throughout her captivity.  She knew it was wrong, verbalized her remorse to Jaycee, yet did nothing to help free her due to her obedience to her nutty-buddy husband. 

Photo from Fox Sports.  The Joe Paterno statue removed from Penn State's campus. 
Can you believe some people are upset that this was taken down! 
Strange priorities when football is deemed more important than children.

And then there is Jerry Sandusky - an influential and respected football coach who sexually abused young boys for years.  It is now reported that high ranking Penn State officials, low-level janitorial staff, and many others in between knew of this abuse and did nothing.  Many kept mum because of their allegiance to the football program and out of fear of bringing shame to the beloved team.  It seems as if many were scared of defying an authority (Joe Paterno or just "Penn State football") that hadn't even delivered a verbal command.

These types of injustices and evils make me cringe.  They seem so preventable!  And, these are just two examples in the media.  There are millions of other examples from bullied and abused children around the world.  If one bystander, one witness, one brave soul would dare to defy authority, so much hurt and evil could be avoided. 

Jr. obediently picking up toys.  Very appropriate obedience to authority.
We want our children to be obedient.  In fact, obedience and compliance are major goals in child-rearing.  We want them to obey for their own good, so they don't burn their hand on the stove, so they don't get hit by a car, so they learn to make friends. . . .   And, there really are too many disrespectful and disobedient children in our schools these days.  It is important to teach obedience.

But, it seems that we also should be teaching our children to stand up for what is right and to defy authority when someone's safety is at-risk.  Milgram's later experiments found that the presence of rebellious peers dramatically reduced obedience levels. When other people refused to go along with the experimenters orders, 36 out of 40 participants refused to deliver the maximum shocks.  Research has also shown that the best way to end bullying is to have bystanders stand up to the bully. We should talk to our children, when they are old enough to understand (around 8 to 10 years old), about standing up for what is right even when being pressured by a crowd or authority figure to do otherwise.

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