The Utter Depravity of Humans when Faced with Authority

I fear I lack the eloquence necessary to make my intense outrage, fear, and disgust at the ease with which human beings will become depraved when merely asked to do so by authority figures clear to you. I’ve rarely been so moved to simultaneous revulsion and despair as I am at this moment.

I recently watched the disturbing documentary “Human Behavior Experiments” on the otherwise unwatchable cable channel “CourtTV”, and it shocked me and made me feel nauseous. Anyone who believes in God or intrinsic morality would be hard pressed to continue to hold such beliefs with honest integrity if they had seen this program or otherwise knew of the studies and incidents it outlines. The evidence makes it clear that only a small minority of people are capable of acting morally in the face of perceived authority. And even this minority probably cannot continue to do so for long.

What is this evidence? To list a few of the most (in)famous, there is:

– The so-called Milgram Experiment, in which 67.5% of subjects administered more than a killing dose of electricity – the maximum current possible – to a (confederate) “victim” who had complained of serious heart problems and had once been screaming in pain but by now had become ominously silent. But what is even more horrific is the fact that 100% of them – every single one of them – gave them 300 volts (2/3 of the max)! And they did this merely because a man in a clipboard and lab coat told them to.

– The Stanford Prison Experiment, in which a “mock” prison was set up by psychologist Philip Zimbardo, where a carefully screened and selected group of 24 undergraduates were randomly chosen to become either “guards” or “prisoners”. Most deeply disturbing was the speed and depth to which most of the “guards” became depraved, even to the point of surreptitiously forcing the “prisoners” to engage in homosexual acts to further humiliate them when they thought they were not being observed. But also quite depressing is the extent to which Professor Zimbardo, a rational and compassionate man, was himself caught up in the evil of his own experiment. (I encourage you to follow the slide show all the way to the end.)

– The “Fast Food” Strip Search “Hoax”, in which approximately seventy restaurant managers and others willingly and completely complied with extremely ridiculous and outrageous instructions to strip search and often sexually abuse an employee merely because they were asked to do so by a man on the phone who claimed to be a cop. I can scarcely believe this story, but it actually happened. And it happened so easily!

What a hideous curse evolution seems to have bestowed upon us! Here are the questions with which I want to initiate this thread:

– Can personal morality be said to truly exist if it can so easily be overcome? Is anybody moral if their morality can be readily turned off by instructions from someone they see as their superior?

– How does one integrate while keeping from despising all humanity for the miserable ease with which we would all eventually surrender ourselves to authority?

– Can we teach children to question authority and oppose the abuse of authority without implicitly or explicitly advocating anarchistic principles? And if so, why aren’t we doing that now?

Thankyou for your post. I knew the 2 experiments.
That fast-food hoax story was extraordinary. I am still thinking about it.

I hope it isn’t depravity, more like not thinking about the situation.

In the first case you gave (electrical shock), this was presumably a lab experiment. People tend to assume that scientists have already considered the consequences of such procedures and that the scientists are in charge of safety.
(However I hope I would see through the purpose of such an experiment. :wink: )

I do find your second example disturbing, especially since the ‘guards’ could actually see exactly what they were doing to the ‘prisoners’. Of course institutionalised bullying does exist (in schools, hazing universities, the army etc), but that shows that society needs to educate people better. (I don’t think that phrases such as ‘War on …’ help here at all.)

WIth your third example, I’m going for stupidity and the fact that the job in question involves unthinking behaviour under time pressure together with low respect for the employees.

Finally I don’t think either evolution or God is relevant. I doubt your reproductive powers are much affected by this behaviour, which is what evolution is concerned with.
As for God, there are plenty of examples of people doing what they are told without considering morality, simply because a religious authority figure told them it was God’s will.

All of those are questions that many people have wrestled with for a long time, including myself. I will say from the outset that I recently read a book that completely turned my understanding of these issues on its head. The book in question was What’s Wrong with the World, by G. K. Chesterton. I highly, highly recommend this book; I wouldn’t shy away from saying that it’s the best nonfiction book I’ve ever read.

Now back to the OP. We don’t need experiments; the facts about human nature are obvious to anyone who’s studied the Holocaust, the Soviet era, American slavery, or any one of countless other examples. The facts about human nature haven’t changed and won’t change. You can read the basic facts in comments on this very board regarding the Abu Ghraib mess or countless other things. Many people can’t live up to the ideal of treating all human beings with dignity, and won’t make a serious effort to try.

Human beings aren’t intrinsically good, but rather intrinsically tribal. When bands of our forebearers roamed the prehistoric world, they early on learned tribal rules. Don’t kill or injure members of the tribe, share your food with other members of the tribe, take care of sick or injured members of the tribe. Outside of the tribe, there were no such rules. Kill, maim, or enslave members of other tribes as you want. Humanity survived only because wars were reasonably rare. Most tribes kept to themselves most of the time.

Then came civilzation, and the rules had to be changed. In every era of history, people had the morality necessary to survive. So, for instance, if you lived in mideival England, you learned to live side-by-side with everyone else in England. But you still had no moral rules for dealing with outsiders; for instance, you’d be perfectly willing to go on a crusade to the Holy Land and slaughter some Muslims. But you’d continue to treat your fellow English Christians with respect all the while. Civilization still prevailed.

That was the story up to the 1800’s. Then a very strange thing started happening. The basics of morality, the idea of acting correctly towards the fellow members of your tribe, started falling apart. Respecting the individuals who make up the tribe is no longer important. And once those basics were gone, all sorts of very bad ideas started to spring up.

  1. Anarchy: Let people do what they want, no rules apply.

  2. Nihilism: Destruction is good, creation is bad.

  3. Capitalism: Individuals don’t matter, only money matters.

  4. Fascism: Individuals don’t matter, only the state matters.

  5. Communism: Let the government control individuals’ daily business.

  6. Eugenics: Individuals don’t matter, only DNA matters.

  7. Naziism: A combination of fascism and eugenics.

  8. Corporate Capitalism: Individuals don’t matter, only corporations matter.

  9. The Nanny State: Let the government control people’s daily lives.

These are just the most popular bad ideas; there have been literally thousands of minor bad ideas on top of these. All of these bad ideas may seem unrelated, but they cone down to the same thing: not respecting individuals. In addition, bad ideas 3 through 9 require that we depend on institutions rather than individuals. That is what’s wrong with the world; Chesterton’s book explains it more clearly and in more detail.

Sure it exists. A primitive tribesman would not have electrocuted a member of his own tribes on an authority’s instruction; his personal morality wouldn’t allow it. (He might have electrocuted a member of another tribe.)

Tough question. I’ll let you know when I find an answer.

Teach children to respect individuals while distrusting institutions. We are not currently doing so because the institutions are in charge.

Funny you should say that. God was invented precisely to deal with the problems you’re upset about.

I think your reasoning breaks down here, ITR. I think what you see here isn’t tribalism (the loyalty to the tribe and the dehumanization of all others) dying but rather the fact that ‘tribes’ (nation-states, ethnicities, etc) grew so big that individuals have trouble identifying with them and therefore those members of the ‘tribe’ with whom one is unrelated in some manner are labelled as outsiders. It’s that old ‘self’ and ‘other’ conflict again.

Certainly the tribal behavior that developed in primitive societies was never able to cope with a nation of 280,000,000 individuals. It’s set up to deal with groups of 10-100 or so humans who are interrelated and know each other to some degree or another.

So when you say that ‘tribalism’ breaks down I think it’s more likely to say that the old ‘tribes’ become to large and individuals began to identify with smaller, more manageable, groups. Family, Friends, Colleagues and such on the positive sides and Gangs and such on the negative side.

All of what you say is quite reasonable, but it ignores other trends in society. ambushed was asking for an understanding of why human beings will do horrible things when an authority orders them to do so. My answer is that the nature of authority has changed in recent times. In the past, people ate what food was available to them, depending on local wisdom/common sense to establish a good diet. Now the federal government lays down dietary guidelines. In the past, a village or town hit by a natural disaster recovered as best it could with its own resources*. Now disaster recovery is handled by huge insurance companies, and, increasingly, by the government. Then, education was a one-room schoolhouse. Now it’s run by a huge bureaucracy. (Or by several different bureaucracies.)

Authority has a lot more authority now than it used to. Its scope has increased, and the amount of trust that people put in it has increased. glee said that people in the Milgram experiment administered the shocks because they trusted the scientist. I’m asking why they would put so much trust in the scientist, when he’s ordering something that’s clearly wrong.

*Of course this didn’t always work. Some communities were badly hurt or even wiped out by disasters, and they might have done better with a big federal government to help out. I’m not trying to idealize the past, and I hope no one misinterprets my posts here as a declaration that life was an earthly paradise before it was ruined by big, bad, modern civilization. I’m merely offering these posts as one explanation for how the mind of a typical person reached the state where it will follow an authorityès orders so willingly.

This is exactly what happened in the Stanford Prison Experiment. Guards vs Prisoners. Because our über-tribe is so large, we can’t identify with it until confronted with another über-tribe. Otherwise, we seem incapable of dealing with groupings larger than maybe 50-100 people.

Don’t worry about it, ambush.

That’s an order.

Because 99% of the population has been trained from birth to follow authority - parents, teachers, employers, police, government, etc. And 99% of the time, listening to what the authorities tell you to do results in neutral to positive consequences while disobedience results in negative consequences - punishment, poor grades, getting fired, jail.

Das Experiment is a highly fictionalized take on the Stanford Prison Experiment. It’s an excellent thriller, one of the few I’ve watched recently that really made me tense. Basically it asks what would have happened if the experiment hadn’t been shut down.

Oh, and as for the OP, yeah, we suck. No offense, ambushed, but is this really news to you?

I disagree that “education” will somehow fix it. Most people already know that cruelty and torture are wrong. You can’t educate away human nature which allows people to be swept up in a situation.

Well, the fact that human beings are inherently cowards, that we submit our freedom to examine an situation rationally at the first hint of “authority” isn’t news to me.

Most people are little more than cattle; the only time they ever excersize their free will is in the choice to never use it again—to become a pack-animal of their own consent.

What a stupendous waste of money those experiments were. We’ve had 5,000 years of recorded history to prove the point. You might as well run experiments showing that if you drop a rock it will fall.

But this isn’t some residual trait from our benighted tribal past. A reflexive sycophancy is as adaptive today as it ever was. If anything we’re killing each other at a faster clip than ever. If you personally feel safe it’s only because you’re on the right side of the power structure. And it’s unlikely you arrived at your safe and morally enlightened perch because you or your parents or your grandparents made it a habit of opposing the guys with the clubs.

In fact, I call bullshit on blaming tribalism at all. The moral confusion and uncertainty of the college student torturing someone at the behest of some anonymous scientist is the result of an atomized individual who doesn’t have any sort of tribe to give him a sense of self or to back him up. It’s the lone individual who is most vulnerable to authority. The greatest human atrocities have all taken place when a powerful state has effectively destroyed the tribal affiliations of its inhabitants. This is why totalitarian states make it such a point of destroying or dispersing ethnic minorities who they suspect are more wedded to the tribe than the state. This is why basic training is all about destroying your prior identity, the better to turn you into an obedient killing machine.

Most of the accounts I’ve read of the Stanford experiment are ambiguous. What were the conditions of the thing? Did the prisoners somehow agree that they would not be allowed to leave if they wanted, and could this somehow be done without constituting kidnapping? What happened if they just asked to leave? The Wikipedia article among others conspicuously omits this question.

If they weren’t actually being held against their will the whole thing doesn’t make sense. A researcher decides to make a name for himself showing that people can’t distinguish fantasy from reailty or some such. He has a bunch of people act like they’re in a prison. He says things like:

Really? You weren’t aware of what you were doing? You lost control of yourself and “turned into” a prison warden in all of six days? How convenient for you and your career. I don’t think it’s suprising that starting acting like he thought he was a real warden, when doing so led to fame.

Either they weren’t really being held, in which case the whole thing amounts to nothing as far as I’m concerned, or they were, in which case it was unethical and illegal, and it illustrates nothing. I don’t think a person can consent to being held like that, certainly not if they don’t know how the thing is going to be conducted. If a psychologist has a few people lock others up, or beat them, or commit vandalism, or go killing people, it doesn’t show anything more profound than the fact that some researcher is willing to do those things. Perhaps it reveals something about the nature of the Stanford pysch department and what being in that environment does to a person.

You’re kidding, right? Need I bring up Aristotle’s idea of how gravity worked? Your analogy is bad – it doesn’t support what you claim. But never mind that. Milgram’s experiment (scientifically, the best of the three), flew in the face of “conventional wisdom”, particularly that only a small percentage of people would do such things, and provided quantitative proof of how wrong the “conventional wisdom” was. Fantastic science; absolutely unethical, but fantastic.

However, I agree with the statement “A reflexive sycophancy is as adaptive today as it ever was.” It seems to me that game theory is a really good explanation, although I’m doubtful that the factors could ever be adequately laid out. Let’s face it, submission to authority generally pays off (or at least is not relatively detrimental).

Frankly, I can’t think of a better word than “depravity”, which is defined as “moral corruption or degradation”. These people’s morality were corrupted on no better grounds than someones say so. As for thinking about the situation, is there really much to think about? They all understood the situation perfectly well; it was their sense of morality that was degraded, not their cognitive abilities.

Yes, people do and did so assume. In fact, the experimenter explicitly told them that there would be no long-term “tissue damage”. But there was no possible doubt at all that they were inflicting extreme pain! They could hear the screams and the desperate pleas of the “learner”, and towards the end they knew that the he was unconscious even while most of them continued to torture him.

So the questions remain: Why did they trust and obey the experimenter just because he was an authority figure? Why did they continue to trust him after they started hearing screams of agony? Why did they abandon their morality on such flimsy grounds? And what does that say about the genuine existence of morality when it disappears so easily? Is it anything more than a pretense? An all-too-comfortable lie we tell ourselves to boost our self-esteem?

Stupidity is a tempting explanation, but it just doesn’t fit. No, blind, immoral obedience to perceived authority is the only explanation that works. Ask yourself: Would these managers have obeyed someone who didn’t claim he was a cop or other authority? No way.

Now you may object and point out that you meant that obeying this authority figure was what was stupid, but in this case the word “stupid” misguides us; it is a blind alley. The actual word we should use is “depraved”, because they betrayed their own sense of morality merely by dint of instructions to do so by what they believed was an authority figure. Note that the fact that this was a “hoax” is irrelevant, since they would certainly have just as blindly obeyed an actual authority, and this would have been just as evil.

Evolution involves the variation in the frequency of various physical and psychological “attributes” within a population. Some of these “attributes” wax and others wane based on the genetic “fitness” of the individual (or rather, the individual’s genes). It is somewhat misleading to think it is strictly about reproduction or reproductive “powers”. The actual question is whether or not the attribute of obedience to perceived authority would tend to increase or decrease in frequency in the world of our ancestors. I can easily see that it would very much tend to increase in such hunter-gatherer groups; for example, obedience to the “alpha male” would increase your take of the available food and mates. Thus I see this trait to be yet another unfortunate consequence of our evolutionary heritage.

Oh, yes indeed! But I’m sure you see the irony here. Doing what a religious authority tells them is just how most believers define morality!

I can’t agree; I don’t think we know nearly enough on this topic. Note that the Milgram Experiment was predicated precisely on trying to understand what made so many ordinary, at least seemingly moral Germans into monsters during WWII. The widespread perception was that there was something innately wrong with Germans in this regard, but Milgram showed that anyone is capable of monstrous acts when they submit to authority, and he did that in a scientific setting. Sure, some had already figured out as much from observing history, but Milgram’s experiment placed this intuition on an altogether different plane. And there is still much more to be learned, such as: How do we best educate and train authorities to reflexively avoid abusing their authority? How do we best bring the public to recognize and resist abusive authority?

While I certainly agree, I wonder if your last sentence is quite on point. The problem I’m describing and trying to come to terms with is that people who do strive to live up to such ideals will nevertheless abandon them when told to do so by an authority figure. Is there really nothing that can be done about this short of changing human nature?
I had asked if morality can be said to truly exist if it could be so easily overcome on nothing more than someone’s say so. You replied:

I cannot accept that. Morality once existed even though it is now dead, at least in large civilizations? Yes, morality could well be abetted or diminished by the group, but isn’t morality supposed to be a personal attribute? And on what grounds can you claim – or even imagine – that a tribe member wouldn’t kill or torture another if ordered to do so by the tribal chief? Didn’t you earlier claim that the facts about human nature cannot be changed?

I had also asked: “Can we teach children to question authority and oppose the abuse of authority without implicitly or explicitly advocating anarchistic principles? And if so, why aren’t we doing that now?” To which you replied:

That’s an interesting approach; thank you for bringing it forward. I agree that most of the fear/threat that an individual authority brings to a situation revolves around the fear/threat of the institution’s authority. But then how do we separate the individual from the institution? Isn’t the individual simply doing the institution’s bidding? Doesn’t the individual completely represent the institution’s will, which is precisely why we imbue that person with authority in the first place? And then there’s the immediacy of the individual. Wouldn’t we fear and thus obey the immediately present individual more than the remote institution?

Furthermore, Milgram repeated his experiments in anonymous private settings which were completely unaffiliated (in the subjects’ minds) with any institution, academic or otherwise. Yet the results were just the same!

That’s hard to fathom, but perhaps I don’t understand what you’re getting at (even though I certainly agree that God was invented). Would you care to elaborate? I was suggesting that a belief in God and a God-given sense of morality is difficult to maintain when faced with the fact that even God-fearing, upright moral people will fold so incredibly easily upon instructions from an authority figure. The very concept of morality is founded on the insistence that a moral person will, by definition, strongly resist acting immorally in such circumstances. How do you think this melds in to one of the “reasons” God was invented?

Sorry about asking so many questions, but I’m still shaken by yesterday’s experience and I’m trying to understand it better.

I was being flip and I’m not interested in debating epistemology or scientific method. I took physics 101 too, and if I were seriously trying to debate the validity of the studies I’d have avoided the analogy (as obvious red meat to the nitpicker). But my point was just that this human trait is as apparent and readily observable as the fact that if you drop a rock it will hit the ground. I have no issue with anyone that would seek to quantify that. But how am I supposed to react to someone who professes surprise at it?

Whatever you think of Zimbardo’s experiments, I do consider the fact that he achieved any fame off of them a sad commentary on the collossal naivete of the American middle class. I suppose we can be grateful that someone provided quantifiable ammunition to pierce through the ignorance. But I resent needing it is as much as I’d resent needing a study to prove that fire is hot.

OK, sorry for taking you so literally. But you’re not surprised that, assuming a random distribution, 2 out of every 3 people you know would act as others did in Milgram’s experiment? Not only am I surprised, but it scares the hell out of me.

Perhaps you’re simply more of cynic (or realist?) than I.