Experiments on obedience find that people who are told to do something distasteful are more likely to do it than they otherwise would have been because they feel that it is not their actions, rather they are just carrying out the will of someone else.

Scenario: You enter into an experiment, not knowing what it is. You are told that the experiment is simply to see whether or not punishments affect the ability to learn. They sit you in front of a large machine that provides shocks of a range of 15 to 450 volts, with a verbal range of word designations such as shock, strong shock, very strong shock, DANGER, etc. The test you are giving the second person is simply a word-pair test, like happy days, jump rope, blue dog, etc, and the person has to indicate whether or not the words were previously paired together. You are told to increase the shock by one level every time he gets something wrong. However, as the experiment proceeds, the other person registers more and more pain on his face, and ends up begging, pleading to be released from the machine. The experimenter orders you to continue, however. Do you do as he says, or say no?

Here's how the experiment turned out:

"Before the experiment was carried out, people were asked to predict their own performance. The question was put to several groups: psychiatrists, psychologists, and ordinary workers. They all said virtually the same thing: almost no one would go to the end.

The results were very different. Despite the fact that many subjects experienced stress, despite the fact that many protested to the experimenter, a substantial proportion coninued to the last shock on the generator. Many subjects obeyed the experimenter no matter how painful the shocks seemed to be to the other person, and no matter how much the victim pleaded to be let out. This was seen time and time again, and has been observed in several universities where the experiment has been repeated."

What could cause these people, disregarding the one or two sociopaths in the experiment that I'm sure enjoyed it, to do this to their fellow man? For a fully socialized adult, there is a readiness to defer to authority that is astonishingly powerful. There are many factors involved, that were sudied, in whether or not the people obeyed, including: the effects of closeness to the victim, the importance of the institution that was doing the test, and showing other people obeying or following the same authority. Many times the person would ask "Am I responsible?" hearkening back to my previous statement about considering the actions not his own will. Once they were placated, they could proceed more easily.

While the conflict between the conscience of the person, and their feelings of desiring to oblige authority gives rise to strain, many psychological mechanisms can be viewed that help the people deal with the stress. For instance, some subjects only complied minimally: they touched the switch of the generator lightly; this gave them the feeling that they were really good people, and that they were just doing what they were told. Sometimes they would argue, but it served simply as a relief that in the person's own eyes they had opposed the orders. This relief in tension allowed the person to continue on with the experiment anyway. Many times the person would become engrossed in the minutia of the procedure, and attempt to lose sight of the consequences of their actions.

A full 65% of the people went to the very last button on the machine, the 450 volt one. While the people on the other side were simply actors (albeit really good ones), this statistic is pretty disturbing.

Stanley Milgram, the conductor of this famous experiment, concluded that these experiments showed conclusively the psyche of those nazi soldiers involved in the holocaust, and the vietnam soldiers that killed so many villagers. To them, they were just following orders. While to us it may seem atrocious, we might not have done any differently had it been us in their place.

Much credit goes to The Oxford Companion to the Mind, edited by Richard L. Gregory