Just Following Orders: The Science Of Authority And Obedience


Since the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust, researchers have struggled to figure out what factors drive ordinary people to commit acts like those in Nazi Germany. Were the Germans of that era inherently evil, or did they simply fall in line with the orders of charismatic leaders like Hitler? Did William Calley’s defense of “just following orders” absolve him of his responsibility for the My Lai Massacre? Psychologists have spent years trying to figure out what’s behind obedience to authority.

In the early 1960s, psychologist Stanley Milgram embarked on a series of controversial experiments in which he set out to discover what factors lead regular people to commit atrocities. Milgram’s experiments involved subjects administering electric shocks to participants who, unbeknownst to the subjects, were actors involved with the experiments. Though many believed his experiments skirted the boundaries of ethics, Milgram concluded that people in general would obey orders regardless of the harm those orders may cause.

Author Gina Perry’s excellent 2013 book Behind The Shock Machine (which I recently read) recounts the experiments, and Perry discounts Milgram’s findings. She concludes that Milgram manipulated his results and that the experiments were as much about the theatrics as they were about getting to the bottom of the issue.

Today’s researchers are still trying to figure out the real motivation behind atrocities. In a recent Pacific Standard article, Bettina Chang recounts a more recent finding:

Sophie Richardot, a social psychologist at Université de Picardie, France, sought to answer this question. She first became interested in the subject in relation to Milgram’s famed obedience experiment. Milgram showed the disturbing extent to which normal people are willing to inflict pain on people in the name of obeying authority. Richardot says that Milgram’s orders were not coercive, but they were explicit.

From what she knew about the Holocaust and other mass war crimes, however, the orders were more coded and ambiguous. So she set about categorizing the orders given to commit war crimes and looking for patterns.

She examined historical accounts of three modern conflicts: the German invasion of the USSR during World War II, the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, and the most recent American conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Richardot found five distinct formulations of orders, each which provides, to some extent, a psychological cushion for subordinates to justify their actions. Regimes that are legally in power, like the United States military, tend to use ambiguous or partial orders, so authorities can avoid legal problems. Illegal regimes, on the other hand, rely on orders with code words, giving subordinates the illusion of choice, and fragmenting the orders to dispel individual blame.

In an email, Richardot explains that her research shows how authorities use psychological tactics, knowingly or unknowingly, to convince subordinates to do terrible things.

“Most of the time, soldiers who commit atrocities are not sadists or ‘bad apples’…. These soldiers are ‘normal people’ but they have been trained to obey orders with no discussion…. I do not excuse those who perpetuated atrocities. I just mean that, when these people are charged, one has to remember all the strategies authorities use to push them to violence. At the bottom of the military hierarchy, people do not always have all the resources to refuse immoral orders, especially when everything is done to make them think these are legal.”

Those at the top of the hierarchy can make no such excuses, Richardot writes, and should be held accountable even if they did not personally carry out the crimes.

We may never get to the bottom of what makes a Holocaust or a My Lai take place. So why do psychologists find themselves fascinated with the science of authority and obedience? I think it boils down to a simple desire to prevent atrocities like these from happening again. Maybe one day someone will figure it all out, but I honestly doubt it.