I’m sure by now, most of you have heard of the infamous Milgram experiment that was conducted in the early 60’s. I’ll save you the details since, if you’re like me, you’ve probably read about it a dozen times or more already. It’s one of most popular experiments to cite, because it says so much about the nature of evil, and the darkest potential of the human spirit; and anyone who understands the dangers posed by government power, could probably describe the experiment from memory.
In short, Milgram provided an answer to the most tragic question in human history. How do so many good people wind up doing horrific things to their fellow-man? How is it that when the Nazis had to answer for their crimes, all they could say for themselves was “I was just following orders.”
Humans are a social creature. We’re programmed to work with the “tribe” and defend it at all costs. This instinct has allowed us to work together in a way that helps us survive and thrive. But it also makes us vulnerable to sociopaths who might hack that instinct with lies and propaganda, so that they may convince the masses to do their bidding. Once they have enough people on their side, they can order them to coerce or kill the rest.
They can create centralized hierarchical societies that on the surface, mimic the tribal and familial environment our species was raised in. In reality, this structure creates systemic pressure to conform at every level, while simultaneously giving people the ability to shed their moral responsibilities, and share them with implied authority figures. The weight of their decisions no longer lies solely on their shoulders. It is now shared by the tribe/government/nation or what have you, even though the choice is often entirely their own.
That’s the Milgram experiment in a nutshell. While the experiment offers an excellent explanation for how tyrannical governments can command the masses, it unfortunately fails to offer a solution. If we know that our social nature makes us prone to conforming to evil, what can we do to convince the herd to stop following unethical orders?
The answer is quite simple, and deep down, you already know it.
In 2011, the Discovery Channel released a documentary titled “How Evil Are You” that was hosted by, of all people, horror director Eli Roth. The show explored humanity’s capacity for evil by recreating the Milgram experiment, to see if modern Americans were just as prone to following unethical orders as they were 50 years ago. Surprise! The results were pretty much the same.
However, at the end of the episode they decided to try a new spin on the social experiment, to see what it would take for people to stop their sheepish compliance. If you’re already familiar with the Milgram experiment, feel free to fast forward to the 37 minute mark, and watch the last five minutes of the video.
Our social nature is a two-way street. It can exploited by evil people, but it can also be used to reinforce ethical behavior. All it takes is one person to go against the herd, and many more will follow.
Joshua Krause is a reporter, writer and researcher at The Daily Sheeple. He was born and raised in the Bay Area and is a freelance writer and author. You can follow Joshua’s reports at Facebook or on his personal Twitter. Joshua’s website is Strange Danger.