In the early 1960s Stanley Milgram wanted to learn how susceptible people were to doing what they were told. He was also curious about their willingness to obey an authority figure, even if an ordered action conflicted with their morals.

The experiment went like this: participants were placed in the role of a “teacher” who administered electric shocks to a “learner.” The teachers believed the learner was in a different room, sometimes within hearing distance, sometimes not. Every time the learner answered a question incorrectly, the teacher was told to administer greater and greater levels of electric shock for each incorrect answer. At the highest levels, the machine was marked “Moderate,” “Strong,” “Danger: Severe Shock,” and the two highest levels were marked “XXX.”

Although no one was actually shocked, Milgram played recordings to make it sound like the learner was in a great deal of pain and wanted to end the experiment. Despite these protests, many participants continued the experiment when the authority figure urged them to, increasing the voltage after each wrong answer until some eventually administered what would be lethal electric shocks.

Similar experiments conducted since the original have provided nearly identical results, indicating that people are willing to go against their consciences if they are being told to do so by authority figures. So any business, any club, or any society which fosters an “I’ll tell you and you do it” approach will be susceptible to this. It’s the “I’ll tell you” that absolves people of the responsibility for their actions and allows humans to do the worst things possible.

The age-old response to mass crimes has always been “I was doing what I was told.” Relying upon a benevolent leader isn’t the answer – the answer is to get everyone thinking and everyone taking responsibility for their behavior. The next time you are tempted to tell someone what to do, and enforce a degree of power over them, whether formalized or not, think twice – and ask them what they think the right thing to do is.

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