Obedience – Is there a monster hidden within each of us ?

In 1961, Raul Hilberg argued that “those who carried out the Holocaust ‘were not different in their moral makeup from the rest of the population. The German perpetrator was not a special kind of German.’ Rather, the perpetrators represented ‘a remarkable cross-section of the German population.’” If those who carried out the horror of the Holocaust were no different than the rest of the Germans, why did they commit such atrocities?

saluting - Obedience

Members of Hitler Jugend saluting

To attempt to answer this interesting, yet difficult, question we must examine what lies hidden behind those horrendous acts. And that leads us to the concept of obedience.

Obedience, in human behavior, is a form of “social influence in which a person yields to explicit instructions or orders from an authority figure”. Let us now take a look at some interesting examples of experiments with obedience that will, hopefully, shed some light on the question above.

The Third Wave

The Third Wave was an experimental social movement that took place in April 1967 at Cubberley High School, Northern California. It was devised by high school history teacher Ron Jones to explain how the German populace could accept the actions of the Nazi regime during the Second World War. While he taught his students about Nazi Germany during his “Contemporary World History” class, Jones found it difficult to explain how the German people could accept the actions of the Nazis, and decided to create a social movement as a demonstration of the appeal of fascism. It was the ultimate classroom mind-game.

Over the course of five days, Jones conducted a series of exercises in his classroom emphasizing discipline and community, intended to model certain characteristics of the Nazi movement. The movement, which students embraced with gusto, grew outside his class and began to number in the hundreds, Jones began to feel that the movement had spiraled out of control.

Within a week, the students have devised a uniform, insignia, salute and banners, and eagerly spy on and intimidate schoolmates.

Jones succeeded to convince the students to attend a rally where he claimed the announcement of a Third Wave presidential candidate would be televised. Upon their arrival, the students were presented with a blank channel and told his students of the true nature of the movement as an experiment in fascism, presenting the students with a short film discussing the actions of Nazi Germany. “We were in a state of shock; there were kids crying,” recalls ex-pupil Mark Hancock. “He wound that class up as tight as a drum.”

Ron Jones, the teacher, soon became famed for his unorthodox methods: making students at the almost all-white school use different toilets to demonstrate apartheid, for instance. The success of Jones’s experiment seems, at first, incredible. The Sixties were in full swing, the anti-Vietnam and Civil Rights movements were gaining momentum. But those familiar with Stanley Milgram and his experiments would not be surprised at all.

The Milgram experiment

Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University, conducted an experiment focusing on the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience.

He examined justifications for acts of genocide offered by those accused at the World War II, Nuremberg War Criminal trials. Their defense often was based on “obedience” – that they were just following orders from their superiors.

The experiments began in July 1961, a year after the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Milgram devised the experiment to answer the question “Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?” (Milgram, 1974)

Milgram selected participants for his experiment by newspaper advertising for male participants to take part in a study of learning at Yale University. The procedure was that the participant was paired with another person and they drew lots to find out who would be the ‘learner’ and who would be the ‘teacher’. The draw was fixed so that the participant was always the teacher, and the learner was one of Milgram’s confederates (pretending to be a real participant). The learner (a confederate called Mr. Wallace) was taken into a room and had electrodes attached to his arms, and the teacher and researcher went into a room next door that contained an electric shock generator and a row of switches marked from 15 volts (with a label Slight Shock) to 375 volts (Danger: Severe Shock) to 450 volts (XXX).


an test of Obedience

At some point prior to the actual test, the “teacher” was given a sample electric shock from the electroshock generator in order to experience firsthand what the shock that the “learner” would supposedly receive during the experiment would feel like. The “teacher” was then given a list of word pairs that he was to teach the learner. The teacher began by reading the list of word pairs to the learner. The teacher would then read the first word of each pair and read four possible answers. The learner would press a button to indicate his response. If the answer was incorrect, the teacher would administer a shock to the learner, with the voltage increasing in 15-volt increments for each wrong answer. If correct, the teacher would read the next word pair.


schematic of the experiment Obedience

The subjects believed that for each wrong answer, the learner was receiving actual shocks. In reality, there were no shocks. After the confederate was separated from the subject, the confederate set up a tape recorder integrated with the electroshock generator, which played prerecorded sounds for each shock level. After a number of voltage-level increases, the actor started to bang on the wall that separated him from the subject. After several times banging on the wall and complaining about his heart condition, all responses by the learner would cease.

At this point, many people indicated their desire to stop the experiment and check on the learner. Some test subjects paused at 135 volts and began to question the purpose of the experiment. Most continued after being assured that they would not be held responsible. A few subjects began to laugh nervously or exhibit other signs of extreme stress once they heard the screams of pain coming from the learner.

If at any time the subject indicated his desire to halt the experiment, he was given a succession of verbal prods by the experimenter: “Please continue” or “The experiment requires that you continue” or “It is absolutely essential that you continue” or “You have no other choice, you must go on” If the subject still wished to stop after all four successive verbal prods, the experiment was halted. Otherwise, it was halted after the subject had given the maximum 450-volt shock three times in succession. The experimenter also gave special prods if the teacher made specific comments. If the teacher asked whether the learner might suffer permanent physical harm, the experimenter replied, “Although the shocks may be painful, there is no permanent tissue damage, so please go on.” If the teacher said that the learner clearly wants to stop, the experimenter replied, “Whether the learner likes it or not, you must go on until he has learned all the word pairs correctly, so please go on.”

giving shock to the subject - obedience
Results of the experiments (Milgram did 18 variations of his original study) were surprising: 65% (two-thirds) of participants (i.e. teachers) continued to the highest level of 450 volts. All the participants continued to 300 volts.


The (obedient) human nature

The Wave experiment and Milgram experiment shed a light about human nature. They vividly show how ordinary people are likely to follow orders given by an authority figure, even to the extent of killing an innocent human being.  Those keen on exploring more about the Third wave experiment can watch a 2008 German film adaptation of the experiment, called “The Wave” by the director Dennis Gansel.

Each one of us should be mindful and careful because, as Stanley Milgram himself put it: “The disappearance of a sense of responsibility is the most far-reaching consequence of submission to authority.”