In Uncategorized on December 6, 2010 at 12:00 pm

In a famous 1963 experiment, Stanley Milgram convinced a majority of adult Americans to administer what they believed to be lethal electric shocks to an innocent test subject, simply on the authority of a lab-coated researcher who urged them to proceed. Milgram was trying to explain the German people’s complicity in the horrors of Nazism, but his findings have vast power to explain the general propensity of otherwise kind, caring human beings to behave badly simply because they are told to.

Once you read about the psychological power of authority, you start seeing it everywhere. A few years ago, a caller impersonating a police officer convinced dozens of restaurant managers to strip-search their own employees. In the ensuing court battle, McDonald’s executives issued a statement blaming one girl’s injuries, “if any,” on her own failure to question authority. Presumably the executives were able to do such a monstrous thing because their roles demanded it—a tidy irony.

When we graduate, many of us will be absorbed into powerful organizations, and many of those organizations will ask us to make tradeoffs: you join the State Department with good intentions, and pretty soon you’re stealing credit card numbers. I hope we become troublesome to our superiors whenever their directives conflict with our values or common sense. If not, it’s up to them to determine whether our efforts help the world or hurt it.


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