Everyday Evil, Part 3: Obedience

In 1963, psychologist Stanley Milgram publicized the results of his obedience experiments. The paper, "Behavioral study of obedience," is probably the most significant and controversial paper ever published in psychology. The question of the study was simply this: How many normal people would administer painful and potentially dangerous electric shocks over the protest of a victim simply because an authority figure asked them to?

The result: 65%

The ethical outrage about the experiments centered on the issue of submitting unwitting participants to such a stressful, psychologically painful, and ego-damaging experience (evidence for this can be seen in the footage below).

The tension in the obedience studies was that the studies revealed so much about human psychology but was the cost too high? Regardless, the insight into everyday evil is undeniable: We are all capable of doing terrible things.

I think the church should sit down with the obedience studies and reflect on them. Too often, we feel smugly secure in our own virtue. But as I've repeatedly argued in this series, "There, but for the grace of God, go I."

Three clips follow. All are very good. The first is a dramatic recreation of the original Milgram experiments. It recreates the procedures of the study, the emotional tensions, and the final impact on the particpants. The second clip gives actual footage from the orginal study. The final clip is of a modern-day replication of the Milgram experiment done in Britain. It is, in my opinion, the most difficult of the three clips to watch. I'd recommend watching them in order. Finally, I think all three clips would make for an interesting bible class, youth or adult.

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9 thoughts on “Everyday Evil, Part 3: Obedience”

  1. This topic speaks to the nature of mankind. We are taught that Adam sinned and made it necessary for mankind to be redeemed. Simply believing in Christ’s redemptive act will save us. These studies teach us that something more complex is going on. I dare say that everyone, whether Christian or not, is capable of the behavior as seen in these studies. Why?

    Scott M. Peck wrote in his book “People of the Lie” that evil is born of laziness and doing the easier thing. Basically this is in contrast to his first book “The Road Less Traveled” which speaks to the hard road to spiritual growth. He defines evil as, "Evil is the exercise of power, the imposing of one's will upon others by overt or covert coercion". Although helpful, I think Peck also falls short in answering the “why” question.

    In being acculturated, we form mental templates regarding roles and societal norms. For example, a prison guard behaves a certain way and has certain powers. Or, obedience to authority is an important trait to find in a good citizen. These templates may be accurately acquired or may be an imperfect copy of the original. A prison guard’s job is to make the prisoner do whatever they want instead of maintaining order, for example. This is important to the topic because we are not sinners who always look for opportunities to sin but we are creatures whose minds are ordered in ways that tend to allow us to behave in ways that shock and dismay us if we are not self aware.

    1. Our self is a symbol, a pattern.
    2. These patterns have causal potency.
    3. Patterns are shared among many minds.
    In your last series you used these points to a different end. However, I think they fit nicely with the present topic also. If you want to take the road less traveled it’s important to recognize that our nature isn’t sinful, just organized in patterns, some of which have causal potency. Be aware that these symbols were acquired and are not innate. We must question everything so as not to find ourselves saying, “Why did I do that, it’s not like me”. I find it best to follow the adage, “Don’t believe anyone, especially yourself”. This will help in identifying symbols, patterns and templates and derail knee-jerk behaviors.

    Rick T.

  2. Off topic: I just used google scholar to search for some things ... I think your sidebar should include links to your published papers (or their abstracts).

  3. Richard,

    Bertrand Russell framed his A History of Western Philosophy by setting up a contrast between the forces of "social cohesion and individual liberty."

    Russell wrote, "Every community is exposed to two opposite dangers: ossification through too much discipline and reverence for tradition...[and]...dissolution...through the growth of an individualism and personal independence that makes co-operation impossible."

    Russell's "frame" suggests a point missing in these "experiments," I think: The moral picture is more complex than the experiment lets on, because challenging a culturally supported equilibrium between authority and dissent--the forces of cohesion and dissolution--is itself morally loaded. There are costs to challenging authority, and "science" and "scientists" are authorities on the highest order in our culture who bring important advances to our society by their work.

    Is it surprising that subjects in the experiments would override their consciences in the morally ambiguous context in which an authority figure continually intervenes to counter the voice of conscience?

    I understand the unambiguous nature of the cries of the "learners." But I also understand that the forces that Russell explains by way of his History unfold over hundreds of years, while the experiments require the voice of individual conscience to emerge in protest in the span of minutes.

    Perhaps the larger point is not that people are inherently good or evil, but--as Jesus called them--sheep in need of a good shepherd and all too easily co-opted by bad ones...

    Of course, nothing I note here reduces the superlatively troubling nature of the questions raised by the videos--just suggests that the analysis needs to be more sophistocated than seems to be in place at present.

    And it is troubling that the Church doesn't seem to understand its place as a check to authority, being all too often co-opted by authority, as the history of civil rights and women's rights and the Vietnam War, etc., show in our country.


  4. Hence the importance of the Church as the community is which the virtues of nonviolence, courage, integrity, and truth-telling are practiced...
    There is no salvation outside of the Church because we need to be properly socialized in order to be saved from our fallenness. A reminder to all of us to BE the Church...

  5. I think in some ways your whole blog all comes down to a comment of yours: "I used to be scared of hell. But nowadays, I'm mainly scared of myself."

    You say you are "mainly scared of myself," but the people who believe this never say this. Men and women who do say this are often aware that "something important exists somewhere," and that that important something exists within us.

    It is amazing, maybe even astonishing, but no one in the psych community has ever said, "The answers to many of humankind's problems have to be within us, and so instead of always standing on the surface of ourselves and looking in, let's go to our very center and see what we are actually like."

    According to Jung, Freud was among those who looked in:

    Freud told Jung that he felt himself menaced by a "black
    tide of mud"--Freud "who, more than anyone else" (says
    Jung), "had tried to let down his buckets into those
    black depths."

    But a novelist was a member of those who believe we need to go into ourselves and find out who and what we really are:

    One ought to have faith in what one ultimately is, then
    one can bear at last the hosts of unpleasant things which
    one is en route. I seem to spend half my days
    having revulsions and convulsions from myself.

    This novelist also shows the awareness that the best we are is beyond the worst we can be, and that we always need to keep that in mind as we move forward toward who we truly are.

    I strongly believe that those who believe or sense this, such as you Richard, should take the lead in this area of human understanding. I don't mean to flatter you, but you do have a natural sensitivity in this area of the human self, human life, and human existence, which most people do not.

    Kind regards,


  6. This is the mom speaking in me, but don't we do this to our children when we spank them? Don't we punish them to help them learn to be obedient? But then this makes me wonder do I spank my kids because I have the authority to? Or because I care and want them to be disciplined when they grow up? Because we want the credit when they behave so well? Because we don't want to be embarrased with their bad behavior? Because I want control over them? How do we really know for sure that spanking our kids help them?! (changes my perspective on Heb12:10)
    I know I sound like I am taking these experiments a little to far maybe, but why do I really spank my kids? I mean we hear thousands of stories of parents abusing their roles don't we? But who is making these parents abuse thier children?

    I can't help but think of what Jesus said about men, "What comes out of man is what makes him unclean. For "within" , out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft; murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance, and folly. All these evils come from "inside" and make a man unclean.

    Thank God for His Grace and Mercy and His transforming work on us!

  7. Rick T,
    Thanks for the comments. One of my hopes in this series is to help identify those "patterns" and "configurations" where evil emerges. Incidentally, have you seen the documentary "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room"? There is a great moment in the movie where the Milgram study is superimposed over the actions of Enron energy traders as their behavior grew more and more antisocial. It's a great example of how a particular "pattern" got way out of hand.

    That's a good idea. Thanks. BTW, it was good seeing you the other day.

    You make so many good points. There is a tension between obedience and independence. Both are virtues, but contextually so.

    Interestingly, one of the things I failed to note in the post was that the single best predictor of NOT completing the series (i.e., refusing to comply) was how QUICKLY the first verbal protestation came. I find that very interesting. It reminds me of how you boil a frog alive (Answer: by turning up the water temperature very slowly). I wonder if something similar happens in our moral lives: We are slowly cooked because we don't jump out of the pot immediately.

    I agree that the communal focus is critical. Alone, we tend to crumble easily. My next post goes directly to this issue.

    Your words are very kind. I think I'm saying something unique in this space. But that could be hubris. So your words are very encouraging.

    Those are interesting questions. And I'm not sure I have the answers to them. But I do think the Milgrim studies are qualitatively different from the parenting situation (or at least I hope so!). In the studies, the two people are peers, of equal standing. Plus, the "learner" reports having a heart condition and complains of heart pain as the shocks increase. Finally, the "learner" falls silent, presumably from a heart attack. Conceivably, the "teacher" has killed him. Hopefully, all this is not an analog to parental discipline!

  8. I actually found Roxanne's comments interesting because they offer a bit of a twist. Often, to test an idea I find myself finding the limit on both ends. Abu Ghraib is, of course, the most recent extreme on one end, thus it is an easy and obvious target. What of the opposite limit? (I think this was Roxanne's direction using her personnel experience) How often (and this was mentioned) do we mirror the authority of the church, or the "authority" of a peer group. But, I'm not sure if this is all about authority; perhaps it is more subtle - how about conforming. Although, the outcome is the same, the mental gymnastics are important. Yes, one could argue that we are conforming to authority. But, how much authority? Does a peer group have authority in the traditional sense? No. But, I would bet a dollar to a doughnut that replacing the scientist with an equally convincing peer group would produce the exact result.
    Why did these people (and presumingly us by inference)hurt others against their conscience. I'm interested in the conformity question. As someone mentioned, a scientist in our society is a very strong figure clothed in much more than simple authority. Who might you more seek to impress?

    I find that society's problems don't stem from authority so much as conformity. These experiments may illustrate the "fallen nature", but not in the way we might think. I believe Rick T. touched on this idea when he spoke of mental templates and societal norms. Societal norms - conformity is central to that entire idea and our role in society. One is grounded in ego, the other in the uber-ich, or the superego.(I much prefer the more illustrative German meaning "over I" or "over me".)

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