In the 1960s, psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted experiments to gain insight into the concepts of obedience and conformity.
In these experiments, participants (volunteers) were told that the study was intended to gather information about learning. The participants were instructed to deliver electric shocks when their “learning partner” made a mistake. These shocks would increase in intensity each time a new mistake was made.
However, the electric shocks weren’t real, and the experiment wasn’t what it appeared. Although they didn’t know it, the participants were actually the ones being evaluated. Their “learning partners” were part of the evaluation teams conducting the experiments. Also included in these teams were the people wearing white lab coats and giving directions.
What is the most well-known outcome of these experiments? That most of the participants continued giving electric shocks all the way to the point where it appeared that their learning partner was no longer responsive. These were ordinary people who wouldn’t otherwise be considered violent or evil; they were simply doing as they were told.
The implications are stunning. What’s not as widely acknowledged about these experiments, however, is that there was a percentage of people who did not comply, especially in situations in which the experimental environment and instructions were modified.
What were the greatest influencers of outcomes at both ends of the spectrum? Whether the participants believed that the person giving instructions had both the authority to give the directions and the willingness to accept responsibility for the outcome. Additionally – significantly – if the participants and their learning partners were in the same room or were connected in some way during the experiment (either remotely, via telephone, or physically, by holding hands), the participants became much less willing to continue with the shocks.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this experiment these past few days. I’m interested in why we say yes, why we are inclined to agree and follow and comply, even when we know that doing so could cause harm. But I’m equally interested in why we say no.
What is the spark, the catalyst that causes us to choose direction? What makes us decide which path to take?
Some people scoff at Mr. Rogers and the kindness he represents. I’ve heard him called weak, unrealistic; a passive idealist, simple and boring. I get it; if you’re looking for quick, decisive action, the kind of action that might be necessary to ensure safety and order, to deliver speedy results and unequivocal outcomes, Mr. Rogers isn’t the first name that comes to mind.
But – he’s beloved. Countless people find comfort, wisdom, guidance and strength in his words and example – and in the voices and choices of so many others like him – especially in times of conflict, pain, sadness, worry.
There are reasons why we turn to these leaders, why we listen to them and consider them to be role models. Personally, I believe it’s because we recognize (sometimes consciously, sometimes instinctively) how deeply we are influenced by empathy and trust. We know that vulnerability requires strength and that there is power in human connection.
Most of us want to choose the path that ends with a good outcome. I’m grateful for those who help me see my options as I figure out which direction I want to go.