One of my childhood memories involves the day my mild-mannered little Polish grandmother lost her temper. Big time.
After my grandfather’s death, Grandma had moved in with my mother and me and rented her home to a German woman who had a daughter my age. Every month, Grandma made a practice of taking me with her when she went to pick up the rent. The two women would sit in the kitchen nursing a pot of tea while we children played.
On this memorable occasion, the other child and I suddenly heard a lot of noise coming from the kitchen. We ran to the doorway and found both women on their feet, shouting at one another in a mélange of languages. Although the German woman towered over my grandmother, she looked frightened—and not without reason. When Grandma was mad, she had a tendency to take a broom to the object of her wrath, and it’s a good thing she didn’t know where her tenant kept the brooms.
Grandma had the last word in this bitter exchange: “Out!” Needless to say, that was the last I saw of the German woman or her daughter.
The woman’s transgression? She had said to my grandmother, “Hitler was a good man.” It was the wrong thing to say to an old woman who, although born in America, had family abroad who had disappeared during the Holocaust.
This incident may have been part of the reason why, when I was getting a degree in counseling many years later, I chose to write my thesis on the experiments of psychologist Stanley Milgram. I wondered, as Milgram had, how it was that in the Germany of the mid-1900s, ordinary, everyday people could be turned into monsters who not only sanctioned persecution, torture, and murder but even participated in them. Was there something wrong with the German character—or was it the human character?
In America in the 1960s, Milgram conducted a series of experiments in which subjects—ordinary people recruited off the street—were asked to participate in research about "learning.” Each subject was paired with a person whom they believed to be another volunteer but who was, in fact, an actor. The actor was strapped into a chair and connected to electrodes, then asked a series of questions. Whenever he answered incorrectly, the real subject was told by the white-coated director to deliver electrical “shocks” of increasing intensity.
As the experiments continued, the “learner” began asking, then pleading for release. Mild complaints escalated to anguished cries and eventually silence that suggested that the learner might be seriously injured or dead. Nonetheless, almost all the subjects continued—despite their own emotional anguish and confusion—to deliver the phony shocks on command.
The book in which Milgram wrote about the “shocking” results of his research (pardon the pun) was called Obedience to Authority. He assumed that the presence of the researcher—wearing a white coat and perceived as being a doctor—influenced the subjects’ decisions. As in Nazi Germany, he reasoned, subjects were able to shrug off their own responsibility for abhorrent actions because they were “just following orders” from someone believed to be in a position of authority.
This is what’s so troubling about very similar experiments recently conducted in France on national television: the context was completely different. A game show host—neither a military leader nor a perceived “expert” on anything—was the one giving the orders. Nevertheless, in that context (as in Milgram’s experiments), about 80% of the participants displayed their willingness to torture and even kill a fellow human being.
What does all this tell us about people—even about ourselves?
First, it suggests that even the “nicest” people may—given the right circumstances—be capable of insensitivity, cruelty, and even murder. Secondly, we tend to behave very differently depending on the context in which we find ourselves. And finally, we are social creatures who tend to slip quickly and comfortably into almost any kind of hierarchy: when we perceive that someone’s in charge, we have a tendency to follow along and believe pretty much anything that person says.
Tomorrow: some implications for America about these very human tendencies given the current political landscape.