I’m not like most people – Why the blind obedience to authority?

I’m not like most people. We like to think that don’t we? Especially when most people are depicted as sadistic maniacs, or at the very least, as people who will torture a human being just because someone else says so.

The movie about Stanley Milgram’s life and work doesn’t do justice to the ideas it covers. It’s boring to watch. On the flipside, it gives you plenty of time to contemplate the implications of his findings. And there is plenty to contemplate.

Most people, 65% if I recall correctly, go all the way. They will keep delivering increasingly painful electric shocks to the “learner” right up to the point where there is no higher voltage on the interface.

They do that despite and right after meeting the person and shaking hands with them. And despite the fact that he keeps yelling stuff like “Let me out! Stop it! I told you I have a heart condition.”

But that’s most people. That’s the dumb masses, not me. I would rebel and refuse to obey instructions. It’s tempting to think that way. But how can you make sure or at least get an idea of how you’d act in such a situation?

One thing that neither Milgram, nor anyone else ever since has been able to figure out is why. Why we give in to authority so easily and blindly despite knowing better and a person screaming in the other room. There is no gun held to subjects head or any sort of threat involved. A few simple instructions are all it takes.

Milgram’s experiment was inspired by his parents’ history of having been slaved in Nazi concentration camps. He was trying to understand how the masses of people that were required to run the death factories were able to override their conscience.

The closest he got to an answer has to do with responsibility.

As long as we are assured that someone else takes responsibility for the things we are asked to do, we seem to not care about the consequences of our actions. As long as we (think we) can’t be blamed, we’ll do pretty much anything.

It makes sense, from a self-protective point of view. Compliance may affect other people negatively, while non-compliance will affect me negatively at the very least by having to participate in a conflict and in extreme cases (in concentration camps) by potentially dying.

So what goes on in minds of the non-complying individuals? Why do they act irrationally and morally in the Milgram experiment? Is it unselfishness or a strong sense of integrity and agency? Is it empathy and not being able to cause a person to suffer? Is it some rebellious attitude towards authority and a general refusal of being told what to do?

Most likely, all of those and several other factors play a role. And the extent to which they contribute varies person by person, depending on their upbringing, status, mental health etc.

Circling back to the main question, to know whether you are like most people in this experiment, take a look at how you behave in situations where you interact with authority figures.

When your boss tells you to do something a certain way, do you just do it or do you tell them about the way you think makes more sense?

When someone in a uniform requests you to do something strange, do you ask why or comply without second thoughts?

When a stupid regulation left behind from a socialist era requires you to make someone’s life difficult, but skipping a few steps would get the same results and there is no way anyone would ever find out, will you comply with the regulation or skip a few steps?

When everyone around you says that what you have in mind is an impossible enterprise, do you take their word for granted or try anyway?

Growing some balls offers itself as the obvious recipe to become less like most people. But that’s easier said than done. However, chewing on questions like these, I believe, helps you develop a stronger sense of agency and a mindset of responsibility.

What it comes down to, at the end of the day, is even if you are made believe that you are not responsible for your actions, you always are. And there is always a choice. Luckily, in most situations these days, choosing to refuse compliance is not punished by getting shot either.

The obedience experiments are just a piece of Milgram’s body of work. He explored a ton of other curiosities in social dynamics. Conformity is another favourite of mine, but that’s a story for another day.