I recently saw a photo of the women in the band Pussy Riot being arrested. I was struck by the look on the face of one of the officers engaged in the arrest. His expression seemed to say, ‘LET’S DO THIS!’
I had a few thoughts seeing this image. I was curious about the struggle the police encounter when they are forced to make an arrest that doesn’t feel quite right. My mind wandered back to my days in university, to an afternoon in a psych class. The professor, visiting from Israel, examined the relationship between obedience and authority figures. His question for the class was: ‘Do we do whatever we are told, no matter the instruction? Or do we stand up for what we believe to be right?’ The professor wanted us to consider if there was validity to the argument the SS soldiers used when defending themselves during the Nuremberg trials, when they claimed they were ‘just following orders’. He showed us the film of Stanley Milgram’s famous study, which investigated that exact question.
For those not familiar, a little background…
As often happens in psychology undergrad departments, professors run experiments, and pay students $5 or $10 to help out. Students come in, get tested and leave. This experiment was a little different in it’s set-up. The students were told that they’d be the ones doing the testing. Their task was to ask another ‘student’, unseen to them and behind a wall, a series of questions. If the ‘student’ got an answer wrong, they, as ‘experimenters’, were to administer a mild amount of shock. With each incorrect answer, the amount of shock was to be increased.
Unbeknownst to the ‘experimenters’, the ‘students’ answering the questions were part of the study. It was arranged beforehand when they would give incorrect answers. What was really being studied was how far the ‘experimenters’ would go in administering the shock.
In Milgram's first set of experiments, 65 percent (26 of 40) of experiment participants administered the experiment's final massive 450-volt shock, and all administered shocks of at least 300 volts. Subjects were uncomfortable doing so, and displayed varying degrees of tension and stress. These signs included sweating, trembling, stuttering, biting their lips, groaning, digging their fingernails into their skin, and some were even having nervous laughing fits or seizures. Every participant paused the experiment at least once to question it. Most continued after being assured by the experimenter. Some said they would refund the money they were paid for participating. (1)
One thing I clearly remember - and this was back in 1991 - was the look on the ‘experimenters’ faces when they heard the screams coming from the ‘students’. Barely audible with the first few incorrect answers, the sounds grew to screams. The ‘experimenters’ would often look at Milgram and say, ’I can’t do this anymore!’ Milgram always calm, would simply reply, ‘The experiment dictates that you must go on’.
Before showing us the movie, the professor asked if we would administer the shock. No-one raised their hands. After the movie he again asked us, ’How many of you, now, seeing what you’ve just seen, think you would go all the way?’ One, maybe two acknowledged they would. He looked at us and said, ’You haven’t learned a damn thing!’ As he turned to leave the stage, his face reflected something not unlike disgust.
It was a pretty powerful moment. Here was a 60 year old Jewish man, from Israel, upset at what he saw as our inability to see the fallibility of our nature. My mind couldn’t help but think he had been a survivor of the holocaust, or had family who had. He was not reacting to the horrors of the Holocaust in a personal, defensive way but instead, logically.
Back to Pussy Riot. Why was I so bothered by the look on the policeman’s face? Because people will do what they’re told. Often without awareness. In this age of burgeoning autocratic and nationalistic fervour, I see strangers, acquaintances, and friends feeling safe to express themselves in ways they wouldn’t have dreamed of two years ago. I see hate being modelled, and mimicked. It scares, bewilders and angers me. It’s a slippery slope. That is what is most frightening of all.
1 Milgrim, Stanley (1963). “Behavioural Study of Obedience”. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. 67(4): 371.8; via Wikipedia.