Why good people do bad things

Ryan Deuschle
Ryan Deuschle

Most people are decent and good. We want to do what is right and treat each other decently. For the most part we do this. But then how is it that so many seemingly good people do so many bad things? The answer may be shockingly simple: we are obedient.

Good people go to work and follow the orders of their bosses. Sometimes these orders are harmless, but other times they might include orders that conflict with our ethics and morals. But despite those conflicts, they follow commands and simply do their job.

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Would these good people shock someone against their will? According to the results of Stanley Milgram’s landmark experiments, they would.

In a series of bold experiments between 1960 and 1963, Milgram conducted and wrote a book about his findings called Obedience to Authority. In these experiments he set out to discover how and why people act the way they do in these circumstances. Subjects were asked to take part in research on teaching. They were instructed to ask a question to another participant (an actor) and if a wrong answer was provided or if no answer was provided, the subject was instructed to flick a switch on a machine that they were seated in front of. Each switch represented a shock that would be given to the actor. These shocks ranged from 15 volts, labeled “slight shock,” to 450 volts, labeled “XXX”.  At corresponding points the actor would cry out in different levels of pain when a shock was supposedly administered; at one point the actor would stop responding, this after giving agonizing cries at the prior shock level.

The assumption was that people wouldn’t go through with shocking others. But what Milgram discovered was that people indeed would shock others, and to surprising levels with only the mildest of encouragements from an authority figure. The subjects did this even when they were highly distressed by the screams of the actor. In interviews with the subjects after the experiment was concluded, participants revealed why they did what they did. Alarmingly, the reason was often because they didn’t want to disappoint the authority figure, or thought that they had to continue for the sake of the experiment. Upon reflection, some found their actions absurd considering the trivial nature of the experiment and the pain they were supposedly causing.

As students about to enter the professional world, we need to take the lessons of Dr. Milgram’s work to heart and question our actions. We need to take responsibility for the all the decisions we make and the often painfully real consequences of them.

This is not to suggest an outright rejection of authority, as obedience is required for an orderly society. What is important is to be able to make a distinction between orders and actions that are just and necessary, and those which request us to take actions that violate our personal and societal conscience.

Collegian Columnist Ryan Deuschle can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @engageinlife.