Over the next couple of days, it all got sorted out and the truth came to light and I was vindicated, however, I often feel that the whole ordeal had left me with a deep mistrust of those in authority. I've never really been a rebel, or much of an anti - establishment type, and yet sometimes I do find myself wondering whether my scepticism is a healthy attitude towards authority, or a little more severe.
In later years, while completing a degree in Psychology, I read of two well known psychological experiments from the 60's and 70's that tested the nature of authority. Both the tests and the outcomes were unbelievably severe on those involved, however for me at least, they serve as a reminder that there is nothing wrong with questioning authority in dubious circumstance.
Post World War II 1961, in response to the conviction of notable Nazi war criminals in light of the holocaust, Yale University Psychologist, Stanley Milgram set out to ascertain the extent to which we are willing to obey perceived authority figures in situations which conflict with our sense of morality and conscience.
His experiment involved two subjects, one labelled the 'teacher' the other the 'learner'. The Learner was strapped into chair and attached to an electrical circuit wired into a control panel, operated by the Teacher in an adjacent room. Both subjects could hear and see each other through a window.
The Teacher was required to ask the Learner a series of questions, if the Learner responded incorrectly, the Teacher was told to administer a 45 volt electric shock. With each incorrect response, the voltage was increased until reaching the maximum lethal dosage of 450 volts. For the duration of the test, a man with a clipboard wearing a white coat monitored proceedings, and encouraged the Teacher to continue the experiment when objections were raised.
Despite hearing and seeing the effects of the inflicted punishment (effects included obvious physical discomfort, screaming, loss of consciousness, even death) , as well as knowing their participation in the experiment was voluntary, a staggering 66% of people were willing to administer the full lethal dosage of 450 volts to Learners. On completion, it was revealed to the Teachers that the Learners in the experiment were actually actors, and no one was hurt as a result of their actions.
Stanford Prison Experiment
In 1971, psychologist Philip Zimbardo wanted to investigate how captivity affects both authorities and inmates in prison. Advertising for subjects in the local newspaper, Zimbardo assembled 24 volunteers, and divided them into two groups; guards and prisoners, 12 in each, while he himself played the Prison Superintendent.
Using the basement of the psych department at Stanford University, Zimbardo planned to simulate a real prison for two weeks in which test subjects would play out their roles as assigned. Guards were given batons, uniforms and mirrored glasses to prevent eye contact and attended an orientation session before the experiment began. They were instructed not to physically harm the prisoners, and were told that an intention of the experiment was to create an atmosphere of powerlessness for the prisoners.
Guards were also permitted to go home after a shift. Prisoners, on the other hand, wore ill fitting smocks and stocking caps, and were not allowed to leave the basement. At the commencement of the experiment, Prisoners were arrested at home, and taken to the university to be strip searched and imprisoned in small mock cells set up to hold 3 inmates. Prisoners were never identified by name, instead each were given a number which guards would use to address them.
Despite the obvious harshness the prisoners were set up to face, most would think that test subjects would treat the experiment with a degree of optimism, playing out their roles in good humour (despite the strip search) as after all, on the outside, no-one was a prisoner, everyone had the same rights, were of similar social positions (students) and could be expected to be treated with dignity.
Unbelievably it only took two days before things started to get out of hand, with inmates rioting in protest of their treatment from the guards. Things escalated as the guards attacked the prisoners with fire extinguishers, while being monitored by research staff.
By the sixth day, things had escalated to such a degree the experiment had to be terminated. During the experiment, inmates were forced by the guards to sleep naked on concrete, subjected to periods of solitary confinement, and to derogatory, humiliating treatment such as being prevented from using the toilet (a bucket), even being forced to clean it with their bare hands. At any time inmates could have demanded to be released from the experiment but amazingly never did, even when the Guards taunted them with phoney opportunities for parole.
In both experiments, subjects were free to leave a any time, there was no legal reason as to why they couldn't, psychologically however it was a different story. Conclusions have been widely drawn from both experiments, and in the case of Milgram's, the experiment has been repeated many times yielding similar results.
Two thirds of people are willing to administer a lethal electric shock to a stranger, sacrificing what most would consider a foundational moral belief (i.e. murder is wrong), if they believe someone in authority over them wishes them to do it.
Concerning the Stanford Prison Experiment, again conclusions have been widely drawn and the experiment's methodology criticised . Even so, the account of what happened in that Stanford University basement highlights to me the depth at which we assume a role given to us, and the extent of suffering we will bear under a perceived authority figure without questioning it.
Living under authority is a fact of life and can be liberating, however when placed in a precarious situation, and something is required from you which you are not comfortable giving, it can never hurt to ask a few questions before acting….. Based on these two experiments, however, statistically speaking most of us never will!
Ben Kitzelman recently spent 4 years travelling between Australia and Zambia, serving for as a missionary, and is now an IT professional in Melbourne.
Ben Kitzelman's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/ben-kitzelmen.html