Milgram studies

The Milgram studies were a series of psychological studies conducted by Stanley Milgram beginning in the 1950′s to determine the influence of authority on people’s willingness to commit acts that harm another human being. Researchers were particularly interested in how ordinary people were led to commit atrocities in the authoritarian Nazi regime as a result of “obeying orders.”

In a typical experiment, a teacher (test subject) would be asked to help teach another person (actually a confederate of those conducting the study) a task. The teacher and the learner were placed in separate rooms so that the teacher could not see the learner, but could hear the learner over an intercom system. The teacher was then instructed to use a dial and switch to deliver an electric shock to the learner whenever the learner made an error. The researcher (authority figure) in the room with the teacher instructed the teacher to gradually turn up the dial to increase the voltage and therefore the severity of the electric shock. If the teacher showed reluctance, the authority figure assured the teacher that it was okay to do so.  This lifted the burden of responsibility for causing suffering or harm away from the teacher and onto the researcher. As the experiment progressed the teacher could hear via the intercom supposed cries of pain from the learner in the other room.  Using this dynamic, some ordinary college student subjects, though not all, were willing to inflict, based on the sounds from the intercom, suffering to the point of agony on the learner.  Many subjects saw themselves as not responsible for their own actions as long as the authority figure assumed the responsibility, by assuring the teacher that it was okay to continue.

So, the Milgram studies showed that normal people could be induced to believe that they are not responsible for their actions.  This acting as if not responsible is tied to the false idea that something other than our own personal capacity for choice can or should determine our actions.  This nonresponsibility is closely linked to the use of violence. Nonresponsibility arises when we do not recognize our duty to disobey authority when obedience would violate our individual conscience. Nonresponsibility can also occur when we adhere to a deterministic view of the universe that does not allow for individual choice.

This idea of nonresponsibility is closely related to the idea in psychology of internal versus external locus of control. A person’s awareness that the choices they make affect their reality and outcomes is known as an internal locus of control, while the belief that outcomes are determined by external circumstances that are beyond our control is known as an external locus of control. Nonviolence effectively depends on an internal locus of control.  There can be no nonviolence without personal conscience and choice, such as the choice to disobey a harmful order, or the choice to overcome our flight or fight response and engage with a difficult situation creatively.