Don't answer too hastily, but have you ever wondered what you would have done if you grew up in Nazi Germany? Of course, we all hope that we would have had the moral strength to stand against that monstrous regime, but can we be so sure? After all, times were tough and both important politicians and leading intellectuals supported Nazi theories and policies. And then there were the ordinary Germans, friendly neighbors like Karl and Lötte down the street. They had joined the Party and were sending little Wolfgang and Gretchen to healthful Party-sponsored summer camps. Being a Nazi was normal for many Germans. Would things have been any different for you or me if we had been unfortunate enough to grow up at that time and in that place?
The most horrific feature of Nazi and Communist regimes, of course, was their industrial-scale savagery. The Nazis managed to murder six million Jews and 22 million other Europeans. The Soviet Communists exterminated 62 million and the Chinese Communists killed 35 million. While these murders were ordered by vicious dictators, they were actually carried out by ordinary people like Karl and Lötte. Which brings us to the famous obedience studies conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram.
In 1961, Milgram did research involving ordinary residents of New Haven, Connecticut, who participated in an experiment that ostensibly aimed at determining the effect of punishment on learning. Along with the experimenter, the situation involved two subjects, one a "teacher" and the other a "learner." The learner was a confederate of the experimenters, so the teacher was the only actual participant. In the experiment, the learner was supposed to memorize a list of word associations. The learner was strapped down to a chair with an electrode attached to his wrist. To encourage learning, the teacher was to pull switches that would supposedly increase electric shocks from 15-volts up to 450-volts in 15 volt increments. Before the experiment began, both the teacher and the learner were given 45-volt shocks. In addition, the switchers were labeled with warnings such as Slight Shock, Moderate Shock, and so forth, all the way up to Danger: Severe Shock. The final two switches were marked XXX.
As the experiment proceeded, the learner (experimental confederate) would keep making wrong answers. The teacher (experimental subject) would then be instructed by the expermenter to progressively pull the switch for ever higher levels of shock. The learner would begin to make noises expressing pain at 75-volts increasing in loudness until 150-volts, at which point he would urgently demand to be released, complaining of heart palpitations. His complaints would grow louder until 300-volts were reached. At 330-volts the learner fell silent. If the teacher showed signs of wanting to discontinue, the experimenter offered a series of prompts:
- "Please continue"
- "The experiment requires that you continue"
- "It is absoulutely essential that you continue"
- "You have no other choice, you must go on"
The appalling results of these obedience experiments was that 65 percent of participants eventually pulled all of the switches, ultimately reaching the 450-volt level. But perhaps modern Americans would be less susceptible to the demands of authority. After all, the intervening years have seen the rise of the civil rights, peace, and gay rights movements, right? Not necessarily. Last month, Santa Clara University psychologist Jerry Burger reported the results of replicating Milgram's experiment. He excluded people who had heard of the original experiments and found that the average rate of obedience remained the same at around 65 percent. In addition, there was no difference between men and women.
In 1965, Milgram wrote, "With numbing regularity good people were seen to knuckle under the demands of authority and perform actions that were callous and severe. Men who are in everyday life responsible and decent were seduced by the trappings of authority, by the control of their perceptions, and by the uncritical acceptance of the experimenter's definition of the situation, into performing harsh acts." In 1979, Milgram's judgement was more severe: "If a system of death camps were set up in the United States of the sort we had seen in Nazi Germany, one would be able to find sufficient personnel for those camps in any medium-sized American town."
But can it really happen here? It's a giant step from a Yale psychology lab to Auschwitz and the Gulag. What Milgram showed was that ordinary people are deferential to authority figures in laboratory settings. The exact nature of the authority wielded by experimenters is controversial, but it seems based on both perceived legitimacy and expertise. It doesn't take too much imagination to think that even more people would have gone all the way to 450-volts if the experimenter had the power to punish disobedience. Leaders of governments, militaries, religions, corporations, universities, and gangs all arguably exercise these types of authority. Hierarchy is a universal feature of human societies.
As obedience experiments show, Americans are not really any better at resisting the claims of authority than other people, yet there was no Gulag and no Auschwitz here. True, there was the immense moral evil of slavery, the destruction of Native Americans, Woodrow Wilson's imprisonment of thousands of dissidents, Franklin Roosevelt's internment of Japanese Americans, and more recently, the Abu Ghraib cruelties. Leaders at all levels can persuade some Americans to participate in immoral activities. However, the arc of American history has been toward correcting old evils and the commissioning of fewer atrocities over time. Why? Because our institutions of freedom have maintained and expanded the norms that limit the powers wielded by authorities.
For example, a free press is able to criticize practices like slavery and racial discrimination and help establish new norms. If Bill and Joanne down the street send their kids Joe and Kathy to an ethnically mixed school, in other words, it must be OK. In addition, American governmental powers are fragmented and in competition with one another. As another Milgram experiment showed, if two experimenters disagreed about continuing the experiment, the majority of participants sided with the one who argued for stopping it. In other words, when people could refer to an authority figure who agreed with their moral views, they were much more likely to act on them. Similarly, dividing up governmental power increases the chances that some authorities will act ethically and thus inspire people to act on the dictates of their consciences.
Milgram didn't really explore why it was that Germans created death camps while Americans did not. The answer is liberty. In 1974, Milgram more generously noted, "It is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act." Americans have not escaped the natural human tendency to defer to authority. Instead, we have had the good fortune to find ourselves in the situation where our social institutions have traditionally limited what authorities can get away with. The institutions of liberty are what enable people to act on what Lincoln called, "the better angels of our nature."
Ronald Bailey is reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.