If I were a psychology student I would have heard of the Milgram Experiment. Now that I have, I’m disappointed in humanity and scared of what it might reveal about myself. Essentially the experiment was set out to prove whether or not “free will” exists when someone in authority tells you to do something. In the case of the experiment, the “teacher” gave higher and higher electric shocks to the “learner” if they got a question wrong. Unbeknownst to them the “learner” was an actor and there were no electric shocks.
Unbeknownst to psychologists at the time, people defied expectations.
And what were the expectations? Psychologists thought that only a fraction of one percent of the people would succumb to pressure and administer a potentially lethal dose of electricity. What they got was over 50% of the people would have administered a lethal dose, just because they were told to do so.
That’s frightening. But let’s take a step back from this experiment and a similar one done in England many years later for a television show. Let’s not concern ourselves with potentially dangerous electric shocks, let’s concern ourselves with simple acceptance.
In the business world, how often do we “follow orders” even when those orders don’t make any sense? How often do we stand up and say “No, this makes no sense”. If we refer back to the Milgram experiment, over 50% of the people were willing to administer lethal doses of electricity. In the business environment we’re probably not talking about lethal doses of electricity, but perhaps it is something as simple as treating a group of people differently. Perhaps it is as innocuous as looking the other way when something that disturbs you crosses your desk.
You just close your eyes, let the feelings wash over you, float away down stream and then you open your eyes. No harm, no foul. At least to you, and that’s what’s important right? You followed directions and you experienced no pain, no discomfort, no harm. But what about the others? Well, Milgram showed us that we are very predisposed to following orders to following the directions of someone else, rather than taking responsibility for our own actions.
In the entertainment world that is looking the other way when someone else is being sexually assaulted or laughing it off as “locker room talk”. In the business world it is looking the other way when you know your boss is embezzling or knowing that they are breaking the law. But, hey, it’s not affecting you, right?
I don’t know whether or not this is a generational thing and Gen-Z people aren’t going to be as willing or as complicit in their actions. I don’t know if this is a cultural aspect, an education decision, or a religious one. I do know that as I have gotten older I’ve gotten more … particular … about the rules, about people’s well-being. (Yeah, I was kind of an idiot when I was younger.) Since I know about the test I can’t really take it as I would stop right away.
But if something similar came up, what would I do? Would I stand up and say “no more” or would I back down and whimper like a whipped dog. I would hope that i would stand up for what is right and, based on how I’ve reacted to other non-life threatening incidents recently, I’m fairly confident that I would. But I won’t know for sure.
With over 50% of people going to the kill zone in the experiment, how do you think you would do? Now look at the person next to you. One of you would go to the end of the experiment. Is it you? Is it your neighbour?