Do you think you are a good person who would never harm anyone? Don’t be so sure!
Take the results of the experiment performed by Stanley Milgram, where the researchers asked volunteers to play a teacher and student role. Those playing teachers were given a list of questions to ask the student. If the student got the answer wrong or didn’t want to answer, the teacher would flip a switch and administer an electric shock. There were 30 switches from 15 to 450 volts, so the shock would get bigger with each wrong answer. Those who played teachers didn’t know that students were planted by the researchers, and they didn’t get any real shocks.
In the beginning, all the volunteer teachers expressed concerns with the experiment, but since there was a scientist, an expert, standing next to them, they believed that this person knew what they were doing and accepted the assignment.
As the voltage increased, the volunteers would look at the scientists, who would dispassionately ask them to continue. How far do you think the volunteers would go? How much were they willing to “torture” the other person by giving them bigger and bigger electric shocks?
You would say that most people would stop early enough not to do any real damage. Only psychopaths would go to the end. The results were almost as shocking as the high voltage.
“65% of the volunteers were willing to kill someone just for the sake of the experiment because there was a figure of authority standing next to them telling them to do it.”
When the volunteers had to physically touch the student to put their hand on the shock plate, 70% quit pretty early. When they were in the same room as their “victims” but didn’t need to touch them physically, only 60% would quit before doing significant harm. However, if the student was in a different room and they couldn’t see or hear them cry, then only 35% refused to go to the end.
The majority, 65% of the volunteers, were willing to kill someone just for the sake of the experiment because there was a figure of authority standing next to them telling them to do it.
In the end, the volunteers were told that it was all a game, and they didn’t really administer any shocks at all and were debriefed on how they felt. Some expressed remorse and felt terrible for their behavior. But many tried to escape personal responsibility for what they have done, blaming the scientists. They just followed orders. It should be the person in charge who should take the blame.
“Many volunteers tried to escape personal responsibility by blaming the scientists. They just followed orders.”
Interestingly, some blamed even the victim for being stupid and stubborn. Those who quit early felt more personal accountability. And they felt accountable to some higher moral authority than just the scientist who told them to continue.
“Interestingly, some volunteers blamed even the victim for being stupid and stubborn.”
A variation of this type of experiment is happening every day in many workplaces around the world. We are just so used to it that we don’t see it.
Managers and leaders abstract the relationships with employees, see them only as numbers in a spreadsheet, and are willing to mistreat them or even abuse hiding behind processes and policies set up “by the company.” They don’t realize that “the company” is them, the people. Managers often hide from their moral responsibility behind rules and regulations, claiming they don’t have the authority to do what might be the right thing.
“Managers often hide from their moral responsibility behind rules and regulations, claiming they don’t have the authority to do the right thing.”
And it is not only about the power over people. It is also things that can have the same type of power over us. In Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman points to a study by Leaf Van Boven, who showed the power of irrational commitment. He gave students a beer mug with the university logo to keep as a gift or sell at an auction. The value of the mug at a school store was five dollars. Interestingly, students wouldn’t part with their gift for less than seven dollars. However, they were not willing to pay more than four dollars on average. Mere possession of the five-dollar gift increased its value to the person who owned it. It is not just the value of the item but the value of the item and the knowledge that it is “mine” that comes into the equation.
What does it mean for you?
Clearly, the people in authority and the things we own have power over us. The power we give them. Don’t get caught in the irrational commitment trap, and don’t renege on your personal responsibility.
We are all responsible for our own actions. You can’t blame the boss, or the rules, for acting unethically. The single individual never starts wars or creates a toxic environment. It is also all of us who stand by and let it happen.
Never say that something is not your fault and that you are just following orders. Always look at the facts and the data. If something is the right thing to do, do it. If something is an illegal and unethical thing to do, refuse to do it.
What is your take on the topic? Do you believe you wouldn’t hurt a fly? Do you blindly follow orders or speak up if the order goes against your principles? How do you feel when you realize you did something that you disagree with? How do you tell your boss that what they are asking you to do goes against what you believe in?
Photo: TheDigitalArtist / Pixabay.com
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