Good and Evil in Light of Authority and Obedience


While we grow up believing in certain ideas and concepts about people, society, and relationships, psychological experiments may change our points of view with shocking results.

Good people deal with others kindly, while bad people behave badly; that is how we may think. Yet, in some cases, the line between good and bad is not evident. This is particularly true when it is related to the inner self that does not manifest itself in public, but requires triggers to show up. Here, an intriguing question emerges: Can good people turn into bad ones when exposed to certain situations?

The answer to this question was the scope of two of the most famous experiments in the field of social psychology. The first is the Milgram Shock Experiment (1961) by Stanley Milgram, who focused on the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience, and how people can harm others in response to orders they are given.

The second is the Stanford Prison Experiment (1971) by Philip Zimbardo, which was conducted to find answers for questions such as What makes some of us lead moral lives, while others seem to slip easily into immorality? How do good people do bad and even devilish things?

Can obeying orders silence the conscience?

What roused Milgram’s interest to conduct his study was the defense statement given by Adolf Eichmann, one of the major organizers of the Holocaust, who justified his acts by stating that he was following orders.

Participants of the experiment drew lots to divide them into “learners” and “teachers”. Participants get separated into two rooms; in the learners’ room, electrodes are attached to their arms, while the teachers and researchers have an electric shock generator with switches marked from slight to severe shock.

When the test begins, each time the learners make a mistake, they receive a shock that increases each time. On purpose, the learners give wrong answers, and the teacher gives them an electric shock. As the shock severity increases, the learners plead to be relieved under any pretext. When the teachers refuse to administer a shock in response to the pleading, the experimenter orders them to go on with one of four prods:

  1. Please continue.
  2. The experiment requires you to continue.
  3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  4. You have no other choice but to continue.

Although other researchers expected that only few teachers will go on to severe shock, results were shocking; 65% of them continued to severe shocks of 450 volts and all participants continued to 300 volts.

Can angels turn into devils?

The Stanford Prison Experiment was conducted to study the transformation of human character, and how confident we can be in predicting what we would or would not do in situations we have never encountered before.

It was conducted in a mock prison in the basement of Stanford University, which was set out to have barred doors and windows, bare walls, and small cells, with 21 applicants who did not know each other before the experiment. There were interviews to eliminate candidates with psychological problems, medical disabilities, or a history of crime or drug abuse.

Afterward, they were randomly assigned to either the role of prisoner or guard. Prisoners were treated like real criminals and they were referred to by their number to make them feel anonymous. Guards, on the other hand, were dressed in uniforms, carried a whistle around their neck and a baton in their hands, and wore sunglasses to prevent eye contact with prisoners.

In the beginning, both guards and prisoners adopted their roles easily. Shortly afterward, some guards started to exercise control over the prisoners and began to harass them, while the prisoners soon adopted prisoner-like behavior and ratted on each other to show loyalty to the guards. After that, as prisoners became more submissive, guards became more aggressive. The experiment was terminated prematurely due to the emotional breakdowns of prisoners and excessive aggression of the guards.

Zimbardo suggests that guards behaved that way because they were placed in a position of authority, and they began to act in ways they would not usually behave in their normal lives. According to him, the experiment showed how the “prison” environment was an important factor in creating the guards’ brutal behavior even though none of them showed sadistic tendencies before the study. Prisoners, on the other hand, expressed developed helplessness, which explains their submission to the guards. They learned that whatever they did had little effect on what happened to them.

The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.

—John Milton, Paradise Lost

In his 1974 article “The Perils of Obedience”, Milgram summed up his theory that ordinary people are likely to follow orders given by an authority figure, even to the extent of killing an innocent human being. He added that this response to legitimate authority is learned in a variety of situations; in the family, school, and workplace.

So, if obedience to authority is ingrained in all of us as Milgram suggested, and situations we encounter can bring in us what we have never expected before as Zimbardo says, would it be easy to differentiate between good and evil in such contexts?


This article was first published in print in SCIplanet, Summer 2020 issue.

Cover image by Freepik

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