It’s OKAY To Disobey

“You have no other choice. You must continue!” That’s all the experimenter said when our hero, clearly upset and visibly distressed, administered 315 volts of electricity to the screaming man in the chair.

In the early 1970’s Stanley Milgram, a clever Social Psychologist from Yale University set out to answer the question: Could a person be pressured by others into committing an immoral act, some action that violated his or her own conscience, such as hurting a stranger?

Here’s what he did. He recruited people from a wide variety of occupations and backgrounds to participate in a study they thought was about learning. It was simple; if “The learner” gave the wrong answer he was shocked. (Of course no shocks were actually administered) The point was to see if the study participants would in fact obey, and shock total strangers. Do you think you would?

Milgram asked psychiatrists, college students and middle-class adults to predict how the participants would behave. None of those asked thought that people would go to the full 450 volts. Psychiatrists predicted that only the truly amoral among us would go all the way to the end of the shock continuum, less than one person in a thousand. In fact two thirds of the participants went all the way to 450 volts.

Are you sitting down? Two thirds of us, the normal heroes of the world went right past the “Danger: Severe Shock” warning, right past the “XXX” and administered 450 volts of electricity to a complete stranger just because someone said, “You have no other choice. You must continue.”

Of course that means that one third of us had the ability to “Just Say No.” But personally, I don’t really care for the odds.

“Okay,” you say. “This was the early seventies. We have all been encouraged to challenge authority. This wouldn’t happen today.” In fact, it gets worse.

Charles Hoffing and his associates met with nurses in 22 different hospital wards to warn them of the dangers of a new drug, Astroten. (Actually this is a fictitious drug made up by the researchers.) The nurses were told the drug was extremely toxic and should never be administered in doses higher than 10 milligrams. Later the nurses were called by a doctor they knew to be on the staff, but had never met, and were asked to give one of his patients 20 milligrams of Astroten. The drug dose was clearly excessive, the drug was not on the ward stock list clearing it for use, and hospital rules prevented medication orders to be given by phone. Nevertheless, 95% of the nurses started to give the medication.

The nurses later reported the reason for their obedience was that the physicians became angry if the nurses disobeyed.

I think these studies have implications for all of us; those who are in positions of power, like teachers, clergy, counselors, physicians, and bosses, and those of us who are under their influence, like students, members, clients, patients and employees. If I know that between 66% and 95% of my students will do whatever I say, then I’d better be very careful about the kind of information I dispense.

Say for example someone really powerful, like leader of the organization where you were an intern said, “I want to have sex with you. Meet me in the hallway by the closet. Bring some briefs, and I’ll bring a cigar.” According to the previous studies most of us would comply with the request. What would you do? What would I expect my young daughter to do? And ultimately who is responsible for the outcome him for abusing his power, or us for letting him if we comply?

I think it is really important to remember that persons in authority hold a lot of power, and I need to constantly check with myself to make sure that I am not doing anything that goes against my conscience, just because my boss, teacher or someone in a white lab coat tells me to do it.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said it nicely,

“Good men must not obey the laws too well.”