In the early 1960s, Yale psychology professor Stanley Milgram performed an experiment that revealed some interesting observations about human response.
Though the result and ethics of his experiment have been questioned, his findings continue to cause us to ponder what each of us would do if we had to choose between following directions and showing compassion for another human.
A subject thinks that she or he is participating in an educational experiment. They are told to deliver electric shocks to a person on another side of a wall for giving the wrong answers on a test. With each wrong answer, the shocks become more severe.
Though the shocks are not real, the subject doesn’t know that and they can hear the “learner” (an actor) reacting in pain. If the subject objects and says they want to leave, an experimenter in the room tells them that they have to continue.
The experiment ended when the subject refused to go on after four verbal directions to continue, or after 450 volts of shock were supposedly given to the “learner.”
Milgram discovered that roughly two-thirds of people continued the experiment until the strongest shocks were delivered. Even when the experiment was replicated in different locations around the world, the results were quite similar.
What does this reveal about us as people? Are we cruel and heartless? Many of us will ask ourselves: Would I act contrary to my conscience simply because someone told me to do so?
Perhaps it’s more important, however, to ask what kind of people refused to co-operate. What was it about these individuals that allowed them to walk out of a room and refuse to hurt another person, despite the fact that they were being ordered to do so?
Unfortunately, Milgram did not provide an extensive study of these “resistors,” so there are few definitive conclusions we can draw about them.
As a professional educator who is devoting his career to building a better world, however, I’m left with two questions:
What would I do in a situation similar to the Milgram experiment?
How do I help my students develop the confidence to question such an unjust authority?
I recall two incidents when I was in my 20s when I was swept away with the hysteria of a mob, a sort of nondescript authority figure.
Fortunately, each time someone said to me: “Hey man, what are you doing?” In that moment, the ridiculousness of my behaviour came to light. That was all I needed to come back to my senses.
But what if I was with others who egged me on? What if I was following the orders of a crazed leader?
The answers to these questions are humbling and terrifying.
I remain grateful to those who brought to light my behaviour and I appreciate the fact that I had the presence of mind to listen to them.
For the second question, I believe that we need to look at the qualities of those who will choose personal conscience over conformity, those who will help others, regardless of the risk involved.
These are typically people who possess qualities like benevolence, kindness and compassion, along with strength and autonomy. According to British historian Donald Bloxham, they have “a certain non-conformity, a moral stubbornness, in refusing to adhere to the norms imposed upon them.”
For this reason, I believe it’s essential that I treat others, especially the young people I’m responsible for, with kindness and respect. It’s also important that I allow for diversity of opinion in my classroom, and even encourage students to respectfully challenge the ideas I present when they don’t agree.
I have no way to prove that my approach to life and to teaching will result in more people refusing to follow unjust orders. In general, it follows, however, that children learn from the way they are treated. Those who are treated with kindness and respect tend to show kindness and respect to others.
I can only hope that I’m living up to my ideals.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.