Published: 03/02/2005, Volume II4, No. 5941 Page 38
The late Stanley Milgram, perhaps the most famous social psychologist of all time, derives his renown from of a series of experiments on obedience to authority that he conducted at Yale University in 1961-62.
He found that 65 per cent of his subjects, ordinary residents of New Haven, were willing to give apparently harmful electric shocks to a pitifully protesting victim (in reality, a good actor) simply because a scientific, labcoated authority commanded them to, and in spite of the fact that the victim did nothing to deserve such punishment.
Milgram's interest in the study of obedience partly emerged out of an attempt to fathom how the Holocaust could have happened. It lead to profound revisions in some of the fundamental assumptions about human nature.
It suggested that the concept of 'evil' was not necessary to explain why ordinary people do terrible things.
Instead his work, and that of other social psychologists, suggests that much of what we do, we do automatically. Evil often occurs simply because we do not question our acts enough; our rationale arising from trust in authority figures.
Milgram believed the true explanation of evil like the Holocaust was linked to his experiments by their demonstration of 'a propensity for people to accept definitions of action provided by legitimate authority'.
His warning - that when an individual 'merges... into an organisational structure, a new creature replaces autonomous man, unhindered by the limitations of individual morality, freed of human inhibition, mindful only of the sanctions of authority' - has much resonance.
This work raises the question of whether any of us rebel enough, and question what we do, or whether instead we simply comply, trusting in the authority of others. All of us should routinely ask ourselves 'would I perform this action on my own initiative if I wasn't asked to, based on my own values?' If the answer is 'no' then almost certainly the action is being done because psychological 'obedience to authority' forces are in play.
Raj Persaud is consultant psychiatrist at South London and Maudsley trust and Gresham professor for public understanding of psychiatry.