Nature Nuremberg_Trials_retouched

Published on November 23rd, 2012 | by Michael Ricciardi


Tyranny Enabled Through Identification, Not Passive Conformity, New Analysis Shows

November 23rd, 2012 by

Nuremberg trials, defendantsThe idea that atrocities result from “unblinking obedience” to authority has become so ingrained in our social consciousness that we rarely ever question it.

Indeed, more recently, popular culture has adopted the phrase “Resistance is futile” – taken from Star Trek TNG‘s ‘borg’ entity mantra — to encapsulate, even enshrine, our belief in how all-consuming is our capitulation to authority, and consequently, the emergence of tyranny.

Some innate — perhaps primordial — instinct for passivity and conformity in the presence of authority figures is posited as the predominant (academic) explanation for the rise of tyranny in societies. Most scholars on the subject accept that we are “programmed to obey.”

But new research drawing upon evidence from the historical record and two ‘classic’ experiments offers a compelling argument that passive conformity is neither inevitable nor the cause of our oppression of and brutality towards our fellow humans.

Instinctive Conformity as Cause of Tyranny – Exploring The Roots

This pervasive societal belief has it roots in two ‘classic’ social-psychology experiments from the 1960′s and 1970′s.

In the earlier decade (1963), we have the (in)famous experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram in which he sought to reveal how the horrors of Nazi concentration camps could have happened.

In Milgram’s studies, mostly male volunteers — called ‘teachers’  — were told to administer a memory test to subjects (‘learners’) and punish them — by applying increasing levels of electric shocks — when they got the answers wrong. The teachers controlled a panel of switches that administered the electric shocks — ranging from a mere 15 Volts up to 450 Volts.

Disturbingly, and with only the lab-coated, clipboard-wielding Milgram standing by, urging them on, all of the volunteers (in one trial) continued to give more intense shocks (up to 300 V) to the test subject even though they could hear his screams of pain and pleas to stop. What’s more, 65% of the ‘teachers’ went all the way to 450 V (in the ‘baseline’ study).

Unbeknownst to the teachers, the test subjects (‘learners’) were actually confederates/actors who were cued when to react to the (fake) “electric shock”.

Milgram wrote about these experiments in his book Obedience to authority: an experimental view (1974).

In the following decade (1973), we have the equally infamous ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’ conducted by Paul Zimbardo and Haney Banks (funded by the US Office of Naval Research) in which student volunteers were randomly divided into prisoners and guards in an simulated “prison” laboratory in the basement of one of the Psychology Department building. In contrast to Milgram’s study, Zimbardo and Banks wanted to observe the interactions between two groups in the absence of any “malevolent” authority.

The participants readily assumed their respective ‘dominant’ and ‘submissive’ roles, with the guards adopting beatings and other brutal forms of physical abuse to manage the prisoners. This abuse became so egregious that the study was terminated after just 6 days.

The researchers’ conclusion was even more alarming that Milgram’s: brutality was ““a ‘natural’ consequence of being in the uniform of a ‘guard’ and asserting the power inherent in that role”. People do not need any specific orders (or the physical presence of authorities) to evolve a tyrannical culture — they conform “unthinkingly” to the roles prescribed by authorities.

Zimbardo writes about this experiment in his 2007 book The Lucifer effect: how good people turn evil.

These two classic studies see m to offer substantive proof of “the banality of evil” *; people blinded conform to their assigned roles and the instructions given to them by those in power. it is, it seems, the tragedy of human nature: we would rather be “good subjects than subject who do good.”

But is that all there is to understand here? Is there another, more compelling interpretation of these studies? [article continues on next page]

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About the Author

Michael Ricciardi is a well-published writer of science/nature/technology articles as well as essays, poetry and short fiction. Michael has interviewed dozen of scientists from many scientific fields, including Brain Greene, Paul Steinhardt, Arthur Shapiro, and Nobel Laureate Ilya Progogine (deceased). Michael was trained as a naturalist and taught ecology and natural science on Cape Cod, Mass. from 1986-1991. His first arts grant was for production of the environmental (video) documentary 'The Jones River - A Natural History', 1987-88 (Kingston, Mass.). Michael is an award winning, internationally screened video artist. Two of his more recent short videos; 'A Time of Water Bountiful' and 'My Name is HAM' (an "imagined memoir" about the first chimp in space), and several other short videos, can be viewed on his website ( He is also the author of the (Kindle) ebook: Artful Survival ~ Creative Options for Chaotic Times

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