Knowing & Behaving

In the August 2nd New Republic Adam Kirsch writes about several new books that discuss the experience of “ordinary Germans” during the Holocaust. The problem of the “ordinary German” as Kirsch puts it is to try to explain how “citizens from an advanced society, famous for its culture and education—could be led in the space of a few years to commit a genocide of the Jews.”

Of course, we know that this problem is not confined to citizens of Germany; it is the problem of any human being when asked by an authority under extreme pressure to attack their neighbors. And who among us believes that they would do that?

Can we learn anything from historical events like this? Is knowing about them sufficient to immunize us against strong pressures to commit violence against another human being? This is the age-old question of the effect of knowledge on behavior.

The research on this question is far from cheering. In study after study it has been demonstrated that prior knowledge or anticipating an event has very little effect on how we will behave when put in similar one. Perhaps the most relevant example of the situation Kirsch is talking about is the well-known experiments of Stanley Milgram in which individuals where asked to deliver shock to another human being in the guise of a study on the effects of punishment.

To study the effects of knowing about these studies, another experimenter gave subjects a good deal of written and verbally presented information about Milgram’s experiments. Then the subjects were asked to serve as experimenters themselves in a similar study. Of the 24 informed subjects only 1 resisted the demands of the authority to continue the experiment in spite of the clearly visible distress of the confederates who were ostensibly given shock for errors they made on a learning task. The author writes:

“For these participants, knowing that people are willing to coerce others and cause distress to obtain and scientific understanding and feeling the original Milgram study to be personally distasteful, did not preclude behaving in a manner similar to that obtained in the original Milgram study.”

The increasing public awareness of Milgram's research provides an additional test of this effect. His research has been widely written about in the media, portrayed in television plays and films, and was the subject of at least one popular song. The studies have been discussed in countless public forums and many academic disciplines. Milgram's work is as well known as any program of research in psychology.

If, as a result of this dissemination process, individuals have become more "enlightened" about unreasonable demands of authority, one might expect a diminution in the overall level of obedience in ensuing replications of his work. However, a recent analysis of these replications, which covered a 22-year period, from 1963 to 1983, found no systematic decline in obedience during this time. The overall level of obedience in the most recent studies was just as high (65% of the subjects) as it was in the earlier ones.

What can be done in the face of such evidence? It is difficult to discount it, given the various situations in both the laboratory and under natural conditions in which it has been observed. Frankly, I am not sure there’s much that can be done. In a situation of strong social pressure, even the strongest succumb.

Kirsch concludes: “A society than can only be saved by heroes is not going to be saved: there will always be far more selfish and corrupt people, than good but ineffectual ones...Someone such as Sophie School, the twenty-one year old who distributed anti-Hitler pamphlets in Munich knowing it would lead to her death, deserves everlasting praise … but she knew full well that she was not going to stop Hitler. It took the Allied armies and many millions of death to do that.”

Shelton, G. A. (1982). The generalization of understanding to behavior: The role of perspective in enlightenment. Doctoral dissertation, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada.

Blass, T (2000). The Milgram paradigm after 35 years: Some things we now know about obedience to authority. In Thomas Blass (Ed) Obedience to Authority: Current Perspectives on the Milgram Paradigm. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.