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Obedience to Authority

The Experiment That Challenged Human Nature

By Stanley Milgram
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Obedience to Authority by Stanley Milgram

Obedience to Authority (1974) explores some of the darker elements of the human mind. It addresses tough issues, like why we follow orders and how far we’ll go when commanded to do something. With the author’s own seminal experiments as a backdrop, you’ll learn how even the most upright people can turn into cruel monsters under certain conditions.

Key idea 1 of 9

Obeying authority has led to some of the most heinous crimes in human history.

Think back to your younger years. When teachers told you to be quiet, or your parents told you to take out the trash, did you do it? If so, you obeyed. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. Obedience to authority, however, is not always harmless.

Indeed, obedience is at the heart of many atrocities, including every massacre and genocide.

The genocide of millions of Jews during the Holocaust, for example, was carried out by people who were following orders and obeying the regime.

While some brave souls tried to fight against these mass murders, most Germans didn’t resist Hitler’s government, which massacred so many people in concentration camps that the corpses formed piles as high as small hills.

Then there was the Vietnam War, during which the United States incinerated innocent civilians with napalm bombs while soldiers raped and murdered women and children. When these soldiers returned, however, they claimed to be innocent.

But how could they claim that after committing such terrible deeds? They were “just following orders.”

The uncritical obedience to a higher authority is evident in most disasters in human history. Whether it’s the Nazi soldiers or an average person next door, if a person perceives someone else as an authority, they will follow their orders and commit almost any atrocity, while still denying responsibility for their deeds.

And yet, most people would say that they’d never harm another human being. After examining some historical atrocities, most of us would claim that we’d never act on the command to kill or harm someone.

We erroneously place trust in our “superior” morals and ethical standards, along with the trust in our own humanity, to save us from turning into the cruel beasts that will do whatever they’re told.

Without some sort of scientific reference point, it’s hard to say how cruel we might become under the pressures of authority. This is where the author and his experiments on obedience enter the stage.

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