Fifty years ago this month, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram published a groundbreaking article describing a unique human behavior experiment. The study and its many variations, while ethically controversial, gave us new insight into human tendencies to obey authority, surprising the experts and everyone else on just how susceptible we are to doing the bidding of others. The original experiment revealed that a majority of participants would dutifully administer increasingly severe electric shocks to strangers – up to and including potentially lethal doses – because an authority told them that pulling the levers was necessary and required (the “shocks,” subjects found out later, were fake). People who obeyed all the way to the end did so even as they experienced tremendous moral conflict. Despite their distress, they never questioned the basic premise of the situation that was fed to them: the institution needed their compliance for the betterment of the common good.
Milgram was driven by the need to comprehend Nazi horror, and today his research is rightly recognized as a warning of how easily things can go wrong if people obey authority uncritically and systematically. Yet its social contribution is only rarely understood to have here-and-now implications. We urgently need to update our appreciation of the perils of obedience to accommodate our contemporary global situation.
The most powerful authorities today make demands that can appear pretty reasonable on the surface – yet are driving us toward oblivion. Climate scientists have reached consensus that our behavior, if unchanged, is likely to result in social and environmental devastation, including mass species extinctions and human suffering on an unprecedented scale. Will our society continue to pull levers until we administer catastrophic doses?
The Milgram experiments offer a potentially helpful metaphor for our current predicament, one that I will expand on below. But first a few words on obedience and disobedience more generally.
Universal Experience, Social Construction and Personal Choice
Obedience and disobedience are universal social experiences. All human beings know what it feels like to obey – with varying degrees of enthusiasm – and we all know what it feels like to disobey. Each of us has plenty of experience with both, and we are always capable of one or the other at any given moment. Every individual with the capacity for independent thinking and action makes multiple daily decisions about whether to obey or disobey various laws, rules, wishes and suggestions of others, whether we are aware of these decisions or not.
Modern societies are largely founded on the seductive idea that valuing obedience over disobedience will bring personal success and social cohesion. We are taught from an early age that even minor disobedience will sharply increase the likelihood of scary prospects like personal failure and social chaos. These emotionally powerful messages are drilled into us at home and at school, cultivating the necessary habits for powerful interests to function effectively, from parents and teachers to state institutions and large multinational corporations.
When it comes to the nature of obedience-disobedience, there is nothing we could accurately call normal. While obedience can be a particularly strong habit to break, humans (in contrast to other primates with more hard-wired social behavioral programming) are born neither obedient nor disobedient. We have strong tendencies to engage in both types of behavior across cultures and generations, in rational and irrational ways. Whether to obey or disobey in any given situation is a personal choice. Human social reality is extremely variable and complex. As long as we remain social creatures, we must deal with the obedience-disobedience question.
Acts of obedience have over the centuries been the cause of far more destruction and savagery than have acts of disobedience – maybe most dramatically during World War II. Humanity witnessed an eruption of systematized violence on a scale never before seen, an outcome fully dependent on the obedient behavior of ordinary people. The war ended with two extraordinarily destructive acts: a handful of men obediently followed orders over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, resulting in the instant incineration of several hundred thousand human beings. Soon afterward, as a result of the Nuremberg Tribunal, it became crystal clear for anyone touched by the war that personal considerations of conscience were simply unavoidable when making decisions in hierarchical contexts. The duty to obey authority could no longer justify inhumane actions, neither morally nor legally. Questions regarding obedience and disobedience were revealed to the world as intensely personal, deeply ethical and of supreme consequence. In a post-Nuremberg world, the ultimate responsibility for one’s actions falls on the individual, not on powerful interests that persuade or coerce.
Unfortunately, the nature of habits is that they take concerted effort to break. So powerful are the habits to obey others that we often continue to do so even when our actions are no longer in our own best interest, or when our ethical principles demand otherwise.
Definitions and Subtypes
Obedience, a voluntary form of submission, means acting in a manner consistent with the prescriptions, suggestions or wishes of an individual or institution in a position of perceived authority or relative social dominance. So a child can be obedient to an older sibling, parent or school, and an adult can be obedient to a spouse, state, public or private organization, or other social authority. But we would not usually say, without irony, that a parent is obedient to a small child; this would seem to describe a different type of social interaction, as power and authority normally reside with the adult. Similarly, when someone follows her peers’ behavior or acts according to the wishes of a person of similar social status, it is usually more appropriate to call this conformity rather than obedience. Obedience is an action performed by an actor of relatively lower social status at the behest of an actor of relatively higher status.
Similarly, we would not usually apply the label of obedience to cases where submissive behavior is forced rather than voluntary. Obedience implies some degree of free choice. People in relatively open societies usually have a high degree of free choice about whether to obey or disobey. This remains true even though Westerners sometimes can be unaware of this enormous freedom and even though decisions about obedience are often highly complex. While we often convince ourselves that our hands are tied – because of potential sacrifices that might result from defiance, like varying degrees of economic insecurity or, much less often, even physical danger – we almost always have a choice whether to obey or disobey.
Most problematic is the process I call malignant obedience, the type of ongoing, systemic obedience that contributes to social or environmental injustices. Without successful intervention, malignant obedience is, like a cancer, apt to propagate itself until system collapse.
Not all obedience is malignant, of course. Obedience has an important function as a social bond, a behavioral link between people arranged in hierarchy. Many acts of obedience are pro-social and foster organizational functionality, cooperation and the betterment of life in general. Too often, however, obedience results in ongoing harm, destruction and suffering.
As for disobedience, it can be manifested in almost infinite forms. Disobedience can be public or private, violent or nonviolent, rational or irrational, passive or active, individual or collective, legal or illegal, rooted in narcissism or rooted in an empathic desire for greater social justice.
Pulling the Levers of Consumerism
Returning to Milgram’s obedience paradigm, let’s examine these classic experiments in the context of our lives today. While teaching them in my courses, I’ve come to realize that Milgram’s experimental design parallels our ongoing political-economic experiment remarkably well – and may offer the outlines of a solution.
The authority in the Milgram experiments was a man with a gray lab coat and a stern disposition who repeatedly told subjects to administer increasingly intense electric shocks to another person.
In contemporary society, the most powerful authorities are the interlocking boards of directors of major business corporations and the state apparatuses that support them. As in the Milgram paradigm, the demands made by these authorities on today’s consumers and citizens are leading to increasingly grave consequences for human life, including dangers that were not foreseen when Corporate America first launched the mass consumerist experiment in the years following World War I.
How is obedience maintained in consumer society? What sorts of escalating consequences can we expect if it continues?
While large corporations sometimes give direct orders to consumers, more often they exact obedience in indirect ways by suggesting images, ideas and social narratives, and by manipulating emotions so that desired behaviors become more likely. This is what we call marketing and advertising, and it works extremely well.
In recent years, a growing body of psychology research, including important work by Tim Kasser at Knox College, has revealed associations between corporate propagation of materialist attitudes (i.e., having a strong value orientation toward money and possessions) and poorer life satisfaction, higher levels of anxiety and depression, poorer quality of interpersonal relationships and lower self-esteem.
According to other researchers, such as Susan Linn at Harvard University, the consequences of prioritizing the consumerist mindset are even more debilitating for children than they are for adults, especially for young children who have not yet developed the capacity for critical thinking. Direct corporate messaging to children, a relatively new and highly sophisticated phenomenon, is a pretty easy way to boost sales, but it also has predictably negative effects on kids’ social, psychological and physical health. For example, most marketing to children is for junk food, a significant risk factor for obesity. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, obesity-related disease is predicted to shorten kids’ life spans to such a degree that the current generation will probably die younger than their parents for the first time in the modern era.
As mass consumerism was being promoted in the early 20th century and the modern advertising industry was developing, the full matrix of hazards were unknown. The “shocks” caused by obedient behavior were limited and minimal – the equivalent of a slight tickle. This is no longer the case. As circumstances have changed with time, the consequences of obedience to the corporate imperative have become much more dangerous.
In spite of overwhelming evidence that the habitability of our ecosystem is threatened due to rampant hydrocarbon exploitation, natural resource depletion and unrelenting pollution, we are surrounded by incessant appeals from dominant institutions to pull levers of consumption to keep ourselves and our society flourishing.
Overconsumption is a function of obedience built on the false premise that eternally acquiring more goods will make you, your family and your society happier. These goods are produced in a way that – we now know – is likely to lead to global environmental catastrophe. While many authorities acknowledge climate realities, they also claim that the extraction of fossil fuels continues to be necessary for powering a high-tech, industrial economy.
Is there really no alternative to digging up and burning all the oil, gas and coal that industry can find? Safe energy alternatives to fossil fuels are, in fact, already technologically feasible, but they do not maximize profits and therefore are not offered as a serious replacement. Full transformation to a green energy economy is a realistic option that would come with many permanent jobs, but this is not a choice offered by fossil fuel corporations and the state that subsidizes them to the tune of billions of dollars a year. At the end of the day, an “all of the above” energy policy like that of the Obama administration cannot hold back irreversible climate change.
Maximum Voltage: Destruction of the Human Habitat?
As the dangers escalated and ambivalence intensified, Milgram’s authority kept insisting confidently to subjects that “the experiment requires that you continue,” a phrase reminiscent of demands made by today’s corporate and political elites. And just like Milgram’s subjects, many of us experience anxiety about the bleak consequences of our behavior even as we continue to obey out of habit, rationalizing to ourselves that our personal responsibility for the environmental crisis is limited or nonexistent.
Fortunately, sparks of hope exist. Climate disobedience in America is becoming increasingly common. The avant garde includes people like Tim DeChristopher, who spent 21 months in federal custody for obstructing the leasing of Utah land to oil and gas corporations. Many others have been willing to get arrested as part of a civil disobedience campaign attempting to block construction of the Keystone/XL oil pipeline, including more than 1,250 people at the White House in August 2011. In early August 2013, more than 200 people were arrested for trespassing at a Chevron refinery in Richmond, California, demanding an end to the burning of fossil fuels and a transition to renewable energy. A week later in Idaho, at least 20 others were arrested for blocking the delivery of oil refinery equipment on its way to Canadian tar sands mines. Other nonviolent activists have been resisting mountaintop-removal coal mining by blockading not only the companies that literally are blowing up mountains for profit, but also the investment banks funding these projects, leading to climate arrests from Appalachia to Connecticut.
When habitual obedience leads to malignant outcomes, the most responsible actors take personal risks and sacrifice their own comfort by refusing to cooperate with the will of authority. Modern, civilized society is a historical achievement that grew out of countless acts of principled and nonviolent disobedience, courageous power struggles with unjust and corrupted institutions over fundamental moral issues.
Not all disobedience is virtuous, of course – defiant behavior that is irrational, impulsive or truly dangerous to others should be avoided. Ethical and effective disobedience is most likely when goals, strategy and tactics are well-devised and the common good is prioritized. (An excellent resource for thinking about tactics is the 2012 book Beautiful Trouble, assembled by Andrew Boyd.)
Since Milgram shocked the world in 1963, the consequences of mass obedience to authority have become considerably more malignant. Today we must confront the probability that continued obedience will lead to the destruction of the most valuable thing we have: a viable habitat. Thoughtful acts of nonviolent disobedience can not only deepen our democracy, they could very well ensure our species’ survival.
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