In Part 1 of this blog, I described the famous Milgram experiment that revealed the tendency of humans to obey authority, even when that obedience led to inflicting intense pain on others. The reactions to this apparently dour news ranged from hopeful denial (“It’s not true.”) to morbid acceptance (“Well, that’s human nature.”) None of the comments — at least none that I have seen — spotted the bright side.
There’s a bright side?
Yes, and here it is. If you are aware of this unfortunate human tendency, you can choose to disobey it. This is immediately obvious if you imagine yourself a volunteer in a Milgram-like experiment, one in which the student is really being shocked. Now think. Knowing what you know now, would you obey the scientist and continue to increase the shocks?
I assume the answer is “no.”
Or imagine yourself as a prison guard, part of an army occupying a country whose customs and language are foreign and frightening to you. Would you you mistreat the prisoners? Would you be willing to torture them? Lots of soldiers under the Nazi regime seemed to have no problem. More recently, American guards at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq happily abused prisoners.
But knowledge of the Milgram experiment gives you a choice. Admittedly this is possibly a hard choice if you are threatened when you refuse to play along, but at least you realize that you have the freedom to disobey. You do not have to follow your compulsion to obey.
So by revealing our tendency to obey authority, Milgram did us a favour — he gave us choice.