By Bryan Orr

In 1963, Yale researcher and experimental social psychologist, Stanley Milgram, rocked the world with the findings of his research on Obedience to Authority; An Experimental View as his later 1974 book was titled.

In his experiments Stanley Milgram would place a test subject in a room with a panel of buttons. It was explained to the subject that they were a very important participant in a study and that they had randomly drawn them to be a “teacher” of another randomly chosen “student.” The student was in another room so the test participant could not see him but he could hear him and they had met face-to-face before the experiment commenced.  

In the room with the subject was the lead experimenter who would give direction to the participant to ask the other participant in the other room to match previously memorized word pairs. If the other participant did not give the right answer the experimenter would instruct the participant to hit a button that would apply an electric shock to the other person. These shocks would continue to increase in voltage until the other person was screaming in pain and crying out to stop the  experiment.

I should add here that this entire sequence was staged. Both the participant being shocked and the experimenter were actors and no actual shocks were being administered, unbeknownst to the study participant.

But here’s the scary part…

In the initial round of testing, 65% of study participants administered the final shock of 450 volts to the person in the other room, well after hearing their cries of pain and terror.

At first glance this may appear to be a lesson on the dangers of authority and the weakness of the human conscience under duress, but let’s look a little closer.

Here are the exact commands given to the subjects by the pretend researcher in order:

  • Please continue.
  • The experiment requires that you continue.
  • It is absolutely essential that you continue.

It became clear afterwards that participants were weighing the value and importance of the scientific data being received from the experiment against the wailing of the other person. In fact, in later experiments when the researcher demanded that they give the shock in a forceful way, 100% of participants declined to do so. This final iteration of the test further indicates that reason for compliance was not as much blind obedience to authority as it was concern about doing the right thing and the peer pressure being applied by the researcher about what they should do.

In recent months at my business, I have overheard my team and caught myself using the word “should” as it regards the behavior and the choices of others. While there certainly are things people “should” do such as help those in need, abstain from violence, etc. we were not generally referring to deep moral issues. I often find myself using the force of the word “should” to foist my worldview on others and cause them to behave in the way I want.

Just as Stanley Milgram demonstrated, this kind of moral imperative can be effective at getting others to do your bidding, but at what cost? Are we training our people that “It is absolutely essential that you continue?”

Be the kind of leader that encourages others to call for the end of the experiment, even when you are the one requesting that 450 volts be applied.