The Common Good
October 2004

The Psychology of Obedience

by Francis MacNutt | October 2004

As a World War II veteran,

As a World War II veteran, I have always wondered how Adolph Hitler, the "Fuehrer" (the Leader), could gain so much support in a nation where most of the people were Christian—Lutheran and Catholic. Why did so few raise their voices against the gathering storm? Father Bernard Häring, one of the best-known moral theologians in the Catholic Church 40 years ago, was honest enough to admit, "The Lutherans and the Catholics set up the German nation for Adolph Hitler by emphasizing obedience to authority to such an extent that they were all suitable Nazis."

Germans who had hesitations about serving in the military and obeying questionable orders were told that the issues were very complex and that they should simply trust in their superiors’ wisdom and obey. Everyone was united in fear against a common enemy—the Communists and then the Jews—under a strong leader. Wrote Häring, "Many Catholic bishops and clergy...played a very sad and compliant role—a role that stressed obedience to Caesar when indeed obedience to Christ was called for."

In our country, a Yale University psychologist, Stanley Milgram, wondered if we Americans might not be just as sheep-like as the Germans. So he set up a study to find out if volunteer subjects might not act contrary to their consciences if they were told to do so by a man in a white coat (the coat was his only authority). They were not threatened with punishment if they failed to obey orders. The volunteer subject was told to throw a switch that shocks a "learner" in increments of 15 volts, going all the way up to 450 volts. To make sure the subjects realized what they were doing, the different voltages were labeled, with 450 volts being tagged as "Danger! Severe shock!"

The subject thought the study was to examine whether people learned more if they were punished. A glass window separated the "learners" from the "teacher" (the subject), who was given a list of questions to ask. If the "learner" (who was really a confederate of Milgram’s) gave a wrong answer, the "doctor" would tell the "teacher" how much juice to supposedly fire into the unfortunate learner. To the amazement of Milgram, 26 out of 40 subjects went all the way and fired off 450 volts when asked to do so. Usually, at some point, the "teacher" would feel some guilt and ask if it was really all right to continue on. When the doctor replied, "It’s for the sake of science," most of the subjects proceeded.

Milgram was so disturbed that he changed the experiment three times to make it harder for a "teacher" to continue. He had the "learners" scream as the voltage increased; he got rid of the intervening glass; he had the learners cry out that they suffered from dangerous heart conditions. In the last group, the "teachers" were instructed to forcibly press the resisting learner’s hand onto an electric plate. Even so, 30 percent of the "teachers" shocked their screaming clients all the way up to 450 volts. If their consciences had told them to stop, they were free to stand up and walk out.

Milgram’s startled conclusion was that many ordinary people are so afraid of disapproval that they will not resist but will carry out acts that are incompatible with their fundamental standards of morality.

The application of these findings to our current political situation, where security and fear are major motivations, seems obvious. Rather than discuss the basic moral issues that should direct our nation, such as the morality of starting a pre-emptive war, the voters in both parties are encouraged to concentrate all their attention on who is the strongest, most decisive leader to make decisions for them. Like fearful children we look for a strong father who will make us feel safe.

Francis MacNutt is co-founder of Christian Healing Ministries in Jacksonville, Florida, and the author of numerous books on prayer and healing.

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