Dominated by Authorities- A Culture Genotype

Posted on June 3, 2010

Harish Alagappa:

In July 1961, Stanley Milgram performed one of the most important experiments ever, in the history of human psychology. He had recently obtained his PhD in Social Psychology from Harvard University at a time when “the Architect of the Holocaust”, Adolf Eichmann was undergoing trial for crimes against humanity. During the war trials following World War II in 1945-46, Nazi War Criminals had used what had since come to be referred to as the Nuremburg Defense. Simply put, they were not vindictive masochists who enjoyed torturing and exterminating millions of Jews, Poles and Gypsies in grotesque concentration camps; they were merely following orders from superior officers. The Allied Powers refused to admit this defense in these trials as they believed that no human being would follow orders that they found morally reprehensible. Stanley Milgram’s experiment changed all that.

The experiment involved three people: the “experimenter”, the “learner” or the “victim” and the “teacher”. The “teacher” and “learner” have been recruited through flyers offering them money if they were willing to volunteer their services for an hour for an experiment aimed at studying how the human memory works and ways to improve it. The teacher was given a sample electric shock, and was informed that this would be the basic electric shock that is going to be administered on the learner. The details of the experiment are unimportant. The important part is that the teacher and learner are kept in separate rooms with no visual contact. The teacher proceeds to ask the learner a series of questions. The learner answers by pressing an appropriate button. If the answer is incorrect, the teacher is instructed to administer an electric shock to the learner. While the shock received by the learner for the first wrong answer is similar to the 15V sample shock given to the teacher before the experiment, the voltage of the shock is increased by a further 15 volts for every wrong answer; thus for a second wrong answer the learner would receive a shock of 30V, for a third wrong answer 45V and so on. If the teacher wished to stop the experiment at any point of time, he was told to continue four times, with each instruction becoming increasingly stern. If after the four instructions (the last of which was: “You have no option, you have to continue!”), he or she still wished to stop, the experiment was stopped. Otherwise, the maximum shock that could be administered was 450 volts. A 450V electric shock is no trifling amount; most shocks above 200V are deadly.

Of course, this experiment was a sham. The learner wasn’t actually receiving any electric shock. He and the experimenter were investigating something far more important. How much would one human being harm a stranger if instructed to do so, by an authority figure? The only real volunteer here was the teacher, who was unaware of the true nature of the experiment and actually believed he or she was administering real electric shocks to real individuals. And what was the result of the experiment? Out of the 40 people who were unwitting participants in the experiment, 26 administered the 450V shock. 39 of them only stopped after crossing the 300V mark.

How would the Indian youth fare at this particular experiment? Replications of the experiment have come up with a scary average of around 60-70% of people willing to administer the highest shock on a stranger just because they were informed to by an authority figure.

Indian youth are brought up with a surplus of authority figures. We have our parents, elder siblings, uncles, aunts, cousins, teachers, professors, principals, senior students at school and college and even de facto leaders in social circles. At every step of the way, we are told what we have to do. Our parents don’t ask us to study for exams, we are instructed to. We are told that we have to follow our parent’s religious beliefs and share their same ideologies. At school, we are instructed in moral values. Our moral code is an amalgamation of the ideologies of our parents, our school and our social circle.

Yet, how many of us have stopped to think about the implications of the instructions being imparted to us by our parents, teachers and friends? How many of us took a puff of that first cigarette, fully aware of all the harmful effects of smoking, just because the authority figure in our social circle is a smoker and told us to? Or because we wished to impress someone and have been instructed by years of stereotyping that smoking is cool? How many of us have ever had the fortitude to not involve ourselves in something we do not wish to be a part despite authority figures telling us to? How many of us have not blindly accepted the knowledge given to us by our teachers and professors to be true even though even a moment’s reflection will show us that it is tainted with their personal bias?

The Indian youth is the biggest source of power in the world today. We are a land of one billion people with a median age of 25. And it frightens me how easily we can be molded to follow the instructions of an authority. A hundred years ago, highly educated young Indians would end letters to British Colonists with the Valediction: “Your Most Obedient Servant”. We are little different. Subservience to authorities is a culture genotype that needs to be weeded out of our communal DNA if we are to succeed in the world.

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