Responding to authority (or, the perils of obedience)

Community based harassment has also been referred to as “harassment by proxy,” meaning the harassment is carried out by others for the person coordinating the attack. When I wonder why someone would follow these orders, I think of the Yale experiment (or Milgram’s experiment). In it, subjects were asked to give electric shocks to learners who did not answer questions (word pairs) correctly. The shocks were from mild to severe. Milgram found the majority of subjects “willingly” shocked the learners (who were actors that did not actually receive electric shocks). He believed this was due to their strong obedience to authority figures, which overrode their morality and provided them with a sense of not being responsible for their actions, and their desire to leave decision-making to a group or its hierarchy (Wikipedia).

I’m posting information about this study to help TIs understand why folks may participate in community-based harassment and, perhaps, as a tactic to stop harassers. Here are excerpts from a blog (link below):

This is, perhaps, the most fundamental lesson of our study: ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.

Many of the people were in some sense against what they did to the learner, and many protested even while they obeyed. Some were totally convinced of the wrongness of their actions but could not bring themselves to make an open break with authority. They often derived satisfaction from their thoughts and felt that — within themselves, at least — they had been on the side of the angels. They tried to reduce strain by obeying the experimenter but “only slightly,” encouraging the learner, touching the generator switches gingerly. When interviewed, such a subject would stress that he “asserted my humanity” by administering the briefest shock possible. Handling the conflict in this manner was easier than defiance.

The situation is constructed so that there is no way the subject can stop shocking the learner without violating the experimenter’s definitions of his own competence. The subject fears that he will appear arrogant, untoward, and rude if he breaks off. Although these inhibiting emotions appear small in scope alongside the violence being done to the learner, they suffuse the mind and feelings of the subject, who is miserable at the prospect of having to repudiate the authority to his face. (When the experiment was altered so that the experimenter gave his instructions by telephone instead of in person, only a third as many people were fully obedient through 450 volts). It is a curious thing that a measure of compassion on the part of the subject — an unwillingness to “hurt” the experimenter’s feelings — is part of those binding forces inhibiting his disobedience. The withdrawal of such deference may be as painful to the subject as to the authority he defies.

Duty without conflict

The subjects do not derive satisfaction from inflicting pain, but they often like the feeling they get from pleasing the experimenter. They are proud of doing a good job, obeying the experimenter under difficult circumstances. While the subjects administered only mild shocks on their own initiative, one experimental variation showed that, under orders, 30 percent of them were willing to deliver 450 volts even when they had to forcibly push the learner’s hand down on the electrode.


The problem of obedience is not wholly psychological. The form and shape of society and the way it is developing have much to do with it. There was a time, perhaps, when people were able to give a fully human response to any situation because they were fully absorbed in it as human beings. But as soon as there was a division of labor things changed. Beyond a certain point, the breaking up of society into people carrying out narrow and very special jobs takes away from the human quality of work and life. A person does not get to see the whole situation but only a small part of it, and is thus unable to act without some kind of overall direction. He yields to authority but in doing so is alienated from his own actions.

Even Eichmann was sickened when he toured the concentration camps, but he had only to sit at a desk and shuffle papers. At the same time the man in the camp who actually dropped Cyclon-b into the gas chambers was able to justify his behavior on the ground that he was only following orders from above. Thus there is a fragmentation of the total human act; no one is confronted with the consequences of his decision to carry out the evil act. The person who assumes responsibility has evaporated. Perhaps this is the most common characteristic of socially organized evil in modern society.


The Milgram study was a landmark study. It was set up to try to answer why so many people “blindly” carry out evil. Most folks believed the number of individuals who would actually use the maximum amp of shock to be low. In actuality, it was quite high (60-some percent). Milgram believed this was due to conformity and obedience. Part of this is because if each individual has only a small role to play, he or she views this as innocuous; although, it plays a small but vital role in producing the overall inhumane outcome.

I mentioned this study to somebody who was playing a part in community harassment. It stopped her in her tracks. She didn’t have an issue with me – in fact, we didn’t know each other. But I knew she was a lemming being used to get to me by my cowardly ex psycho bosses. Some say these folks are given a script to follow – so use fire to fight fire – and use this in your script. Good luck!


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