The foundation for understanding the psychology of tyranny and human obedience is based on classical studies such as theÂ Stanford Prison ExperimentÂ conducted in 1971 by Dr. Philip Zimbardo, and theÂ Milgram Obedience ExperimentÂ conducted by Stanley Milgram in the early 1960s, with very little done since then in terms of research into this form of extreme behavior.
These experiments showed that ordinary people will participate, sometimes enthusiastically, in acts of cruelty when put in roles of authority or are instructed by authority figures to engage in such acts.
Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.Â â€“ Stanley Milgram, â€śThe Perils of Obedience,â€ť 1974
Milgram and Zimbardoâ€™s theories are now challenged by professors Alex Haslam and Stephen Reicher who published a recent essay, â€śContesting the ‘Nature’ Of Conformity: What Milgram and Zimbardoâ€™s Studies Really Showâ€ť, inÂ PLOS Bilology.
Haslam and Reicher argue that people do not conform blindly to the roles and rules of authority, but they conform because they identify with the authority. These conformists do not lack intelligence or morality, but are aware of what they are doing and believe that what they are doing is right.
â€¦the fundamental point is that tyranny does not flourish because perpetrators are helpless and ignorant of their actions. It flourishes because they actively identify with those who promote vicious acts as virtuous. It is this conviction that steels participants to do their dirty work and that makes them work energetically and creatively to ensure its success.Â â€“ Haslam and Reicher, â€śContesting the â€śNatureâ€ť Of Conformity: What Milgram and Zimbardoâ€™s Studies Really Show,â€ť Nov. 2012
The power of the environment has a way of changing and transforming people to a point of obedience and conformity, and, sadly, cruelty.
In our world, we are conditioned to obey authority â€“ school faculty, TSA agents, police, the IRS â€“ always for good reasons, of course â€“ education, safety, security. Destructive acts can easily be presented as constructive and necessary. Yet, Haslamâ€™s research highlights that perhaps our relationship with authority is not necessarily as straight forward as it used to be in 1960s and 1970s.
We are not thoughtless. We are not helpless.
What we wanted to show [in our research] is that groups are also a basis for resistanceâ€¦Â â€“ Professor Alex Haslam
Anna Hunt is a writer and entrepreneurÂ with over a decade of experience in research and editorial writing. She and her husband run a preparedness e-store outlet atÂ www.offgridoutpost.com, offeringÂ GMO-free storable foodÂ and emergency kits. Anna is also a certified Hatha yoga instructor. She enjoys raising her children and being a voice for optimal human health and wellness. Read more of her excellent articlesÂ here.
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