Human obedience: The myth of blind conformity

Credit: Mark Probst, Flickr
Credit: Mark Probst, Flickr

In the 1960s and 1970s, classic social psychological studies were conducted that provided evidence that even normal, decent people can engage in acts of extreme cruelty when instructed to do so by others. However, in an essay published November 20 in the open access journal PLOS Biology, Professors Alex Haslam and Stephen Reicher revisit these studies' conclusions and explain how awful acts involve not just obedience, but enthusiasm too—challenging the long-held belief that human beings are 'programmed' for conformity.

This belief can be traced back to two landmark empirical research programs conducted by Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo in the 1960s and early 1970s. Milgram's 'Obedience to Authority' research is widely believed to show that people blindly conform to the instructions of an authority figure, and Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) is commonly understood to show that people will take on abusive roles uncritically.

However, Professor Haslam, from the University of Queensland, argues that tyranny does not result from blind conformity to rules and roles. Rather, it is a creative act of followership, resulting from identifying with authorities who represent vicious acts as virtuous.

"Decent people participate in horrific acts not because they become passive, mindless functionaries who do not know what they are doing, but rather because they come to believe—typically under the influence of those in authority—that what they are doing is right," Professor Haslam explained.

Professor Reicher, of the University of St Andrews, added that it is not that they were blind to the evil they were perpetrating, but rather that they knew what they were doing, and believed it to be right.

These conclusions were partly informed by Professors Haslam and Reicher's own prison experiment, conducted in 2002 in collaboration with the BBC. The study generated three findings. First, participants did not conform automatically to their assigned role; second, they only acted in terms of group membership to the extent that they identified with the group; and finally, group identity did not mean that people simply accepted their assigned position—it also empowered them to resist it.

Although Zimbardo and Milgram's findings remain highly influential, Professor Haslam argue that their conclusions do not hold up well under close empirical scrutiny.

Professor Reicher concludes that tyranny does not flourish because perpetrators are helpless and ignorant; it flourishes because they are convinced that they are doing something worthy.

Comments

I've been critical of Milgram and Zimbardo for years. Their work is still being taught in psychology as fact, which is wrong. I'm glad to see someone else concurs.

It seems to me that this is an epidemic! In my own life I am bombarded by these social failure. One after another become more and more pathetic, under the influence of false authorities. Society as a victim has to alert as to this disease. The Canadian RCMP is now in a social vendetta against it's own peoples!

And yes, they feel compensated to abuse the weak, with all the national and religious memberships DEMANDED mostly, as instructions for abuse. It is hard to become a person with so much random bullyism.

I know Im kind of late, but... I've seen the film "The Experiment" which I think is about the prison studies, that were spoken about in this article. I think this is true, but motivation also plays a large part as well. People are motivated by different things, you find out what motivates them, use it, and you can usually get the response you want. In the film they were motivated by the money at the end of the experiment, but one of the guys playing a prison guard was motivated by power, and how good he felt when he used his power.
To say that this article is true, would be agreeing with the thought that people are naturally good.

Thus explaining religion who sole goal is human control and the destruction of the sovereign independent individual [who is after all, a sinner from birth].

I cant believe that with all of the data available about Germany during WW2, PolPot, the Camir Rouge and the Soviets, that they have come to this conclusion by way of experimentation... Its a big DUHHHH. We all know that people will always do what they think is the right thing at any given moment. Hitler thought he was doing the right thing, and convinced a country that he had the solution. We all know how that turned out. And we have examples of this behavior throughout Man's recorded history.

There is a place and a time when the scientific method needs to learn from such grand exihibits of profound human behavior. Where all the proof needed is there right in front of all of our eyes. The very fact that we are still killing each other over money shows how very barbaric humanity still is.

A better use of resources would be to examine what we have not tried before.... For example, living without any Monitary system. This is what people today still think is impossible. These questions need to be answered. I would be happy to volunteer too!

I am not so sure.. I mean yes, we all do what we think is the right thing, but that can be going along with the crowd, even though we know, the crowd is not doing the right thing.
Evidence of this would be the Jews going to the gas chambers. Many knew they were probabily on their way to die, yet they just did what the guys with the guns told them to do despite the fact that they outnumbered them.
I guess " Doing the right thing" is what is subjective. As we have seen, people will vote the way their peers tell them to or the way they percieve as the right way, even if they dont know what the right way really is. I.E. just voting for a person based on skin color....
I think it realky depends on our character, and our level of understanding about the situation at hand.

Its more likely thast people are "scared" into conformity.