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Psychologists add caveat to ‘blind conformity’ research
Two iconic sets of research — Stanley Milgram’s 1960s
“obedience to authority” studies and Philip Zimbardo’s 1971
Stanford Prison Experiment — highlighted the unsavory
reality that people can be prodded into harming others.
Milgram found that participants were willing to administer
apparently lethal electric shocks in the context of a scientific
experiment, while Zimbardo demonstrated that some people
assigned to the role of prison guard ended up treating
Are we all doomed to carry out evil deeds robotically under
the right circumstances? Not necessarily, say psychologists
S. Alexander Haslam, PhD, of the University of Queensland,
and Stephen D. Reicher, PhD, of the University of St. Andrews.
In a November essay in PLOS Biology, they offer evidence from
history, from Zimbardo’s and Milgram’s work, and from their
own research showing that people who tend to follow authority
aren’t sheep or robots, but rather people who enthusiastically
identify with a group’s or leader’s agenda.
“We have this model of evil as a slippery slope, as something
we fall carelessly into,” says Haslam. “But there’s plenty of
evidence that many people don’t go along with paradigms they
don’t believe in, and that when people do commit harmful
actions in a group context, it’s because they strongly identify
with the cause.”
A historical example is Adolf Eichmann, a chief organizer of
the Holocaust who is often touted as the exemplar of a bland
bureaucrat following orders. But historical texts show he was
highly creative, elaborating many of the practical details of the
“final solution” himself. What’s more, Eichmann expressed no
regret during his trial, justifying his decision to send millions
of Jews and others to their deaths because he believed it would
build a better Germany.