Torture Research

Obedience & Power Relationships

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           Most researchers would agree that authority plays an important role in the commission of violence, but there is some disagreement about what role authority plays. Milgram and others have shown that otherwise normal individuals will perform violent acts when ordered to do so by what they perceive to be a legitimate authority. Zimbardo has shown that direct orders are not always necessary, and that people in positions of power can spontaneously invent methods to abuse and humiliate people under their command. Other researchers have argued that the structure of bureaucracy creates an environment in which responsibility for harmful actions is shared among multiple levels of authority, so that orders to commit violent acts can be issued without it being clear which individual, if any, actually is responsible for the order’s issuance.

            Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience to authority demonstrated that people would inflict pain on others in violation of their own moral sentiments if ordered to do so by someone they saw as a legitimate authority (Milgram 1963, 1965, 1974), although the rate of compliance varied greatly depending on the conditions of the experiment. While Milgram’s findings are important, they have been interpreted too broadly by some scholars, and it is important to keep in mind that the Milgram experiments do not prove that almost anyone can be easily transformed into a torturer (Blass 2000; Miller 1986, 2004). In Milgram’s original experiment, the subjects delivered shocks to a person who was separated from them by an opaque wall. In follow-up experiments, subjects were placed within sight or touching distance of the individual receiving the shocks, and in these circumstances subjects were much less willing to follow orders. Also, Milgram’s experiment presented subjects with an unexpected dilemma, and forced them to react on the spot and under pressure. Given time to think about their actions, more subjects may have resisted the orders. In fact, follow-up studies on obedience using different experimental designs found that most subjects resisted orders to carry out unethical actions when given time to think and the opportunity to consult with others (Hofling et al. 1966; Miller 1986:81-6; Rank and Jacobson 1977).

            While Milgram’s experiments could not perfectly replicate the conditions under which individuals inflict violence on one another, interviews with people who engaged in such behavior in real life do indicate that people tend to follow orders, even when ordered to engage in activities they might view as immoral. Obedience to orders was found to be an important cause of violence in studies of doctors who worked at Nazi concentration camps (Lifton 1986), civilians who were recruited to serve in Nazi death squads (Browning 1993), and former torturers in Greece (Haritos-Fatouros 2003), Brazil (Huggins 2002), and Uruguay (Crelinsten 1995).

            In the well-known Stanford Prison Experiment, Philip Zimbardo and others recruited male college student volunteers and randomly assigned them to be prisoners and guards in a simulated prison. Even though the students had been screened for psychological problems and found to be normal, their behavior quickly changed for the worse upon entering the prison setting. The prisoners defied the authority of the guards, and the guards responded with increasingly violent and humiliating punishments, such as stripping inmates naked, placing them in solitary confinement, and forcing them to engage in exercise, such as push-ups and jumping jacks. The unexpected negative behavior of the participants caused Zimbardo to end the study early and argue that it should not be replicated, and no new experiments of this sort were done for decades (Haney, Banks, and Zimbardo 1973; Zimbardo 2006; Zimbardo, Maslach, and Haney, 2000). While Zimbardo emphasized the role of social setting in the commission of violence, his experiment makes it unclear the extent to which authority is important. The “guards” in his experiment spontaneously innovated ways to abuse prisoners, but were also encouraged to do so by Zimbardo himself, who participated in the experiment in a leadership role.

            Adams and Balfour (2004) have developed a theory of “administrative evil” to explain torture and violence.  In large organizations such as the military, any decision is shared among numerous individuals at multiple levels of the hierarchy. In such a situation, a decision can be made to perform an unethical act without any one individual feeling personally responsible for making the decision. The rise of instrumental rationality, and the importance given pragmatic concerns rather than ethical ones, further contributes to the tendency of individuals in bureaucratic organizations to commit evil acts. In a later article, Adams, Balfour, and Reed (2006) used this theory to explain the tortures at Abu Ghraib.

Adams, Guy B., and Danny L. Balfour. 2004. Unmasking Administrative Evil, Revised Edition. Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe.

Adams, Guy B., Danny L. Balfour, and George E. Reed. 2006. “Abu Ghraib, Administrative Evil, and Moral Inversion: The Value of ‘Putting Cruelty First.’” Public Administration Review September/October 2006, 680-693.

Blass, Thomas. 2000. “The Milgram Paradigm After 35 Years: Some Things We Now Know About Obedience to Authority.” Pages 35-60 in Thomas Blass, ed., Obedience to Authority: Current Perspectives on the Milgram Paradigm. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Haney, Craig, Curtis Banks, and Philip Zimbardo. 1973. “Interpersonal Dynamics in a Simulated Prison.” International Journal of Criminology and Penology 1, 69-97.

Hofling, Charles K., Evelyne Brotzman, Sarah Dalrymple, Nancy Graves, and Chester M. Pierce. 1966. “An Experimental Study of Nurse-Physician Relations.” Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 143, 171-80.

Miller, Arthur G. 1986. The Obedience Experiments: Case Study of a Controversy in Social Science. Wesport, Connecticut: Praeger.

Miller, Arthur G. 2004. “What Can the Milgram Obedience Experiments Tell Us about the Holocaust? Generalizing from the Social Psychology Laboratory.” Pages 193-239 in Arthur G. Miller, ed., The Social Psychology of Good and Evil. New York: Guildford Press.

Milgram, Stanley. 1963. “Behavioral Study of Obedience.” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 67, 371-8.

Milgram, Stanley. 1965. “Some Conditions of Obedience and Disobedience to Authority.” Human Relations 18, 57-76.

Milgram, Stanley. 1974. Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. New York: Harper and Row.

Rank, Stephen G., and Cardell K. Jacobson. 1977. “Hospital Nurses’ Compliance with Medication Overdose Orders: A Failure to Replicate.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 18:188-93.

Reicher, Stephen, and S. Alexander Haslam. 2006. “Rethinking the Psychology of Tyranny: The BBC Prison Study.” British Journal of Social Psychology 45, 1-40.

Zimbardo, Philip G. 2006. “On Rethinking the Psychology of Tyranny: The BBC Prison Study.” British Journal of Social Psychology 45, 47-53.

Zimbardo, Philip G., Christina Maslach, and Craig Haney. 2000. “Reflections on the Stanford Prison Experiment: Genesis, Transformations, Consequences.” Pages 193-237 in Thomas Blass, ed., Obedience to Authority: Current Perspectives on the Milgram Paradigm. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Zimbardo, Philip G. 2007. The Lucifer Effect. New York: Random House.

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Written by tortureresearch

January 27, 2010 at 8:17 pm

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