Evolutionary Biology and The Famous Milgram Study

10/10/2021


I strongly believe that if we were to conduct a study about obedience similar to the one conducted by Stanley Milgram in 1963, we would get similar results. I believe that we would get similar results regardless of the study participants’ race, ethnicity, country of origin, gender, or really any other factor (with the possible exceptions of age and health status). As long as the study participants are adult human beings, we would get similar results. My reasoning for this comes from my prior understanding of evolutionary biology and the writings of luminary and scholar Richard Dawkins. Along with the information provided in this module and my quite extensive personal interest in evolutionary biology, I would conclude that because the human brain has not evolved structurally to any significant degree in hundreds of thousands of years, that this behavior can be replicated at any time.

Because I am well-informed about research regulations and am an older person with more life experience, I would probably already know that if I were to participate in such a study today, that it would be “fake”. I would know that a human rights violation of that magnitude would most likely not be occurring at any well respected university in America today, and so I would go to max shock just because I have a wry sense of humor. But, if I were living back in the 1960s, and if I did not know about regulations or human rights, I could see myself pushing the lever to a quite high degree of shock. Of course, this behavior would be driven by fear. Perhaps I would not know the consequences of my noncompliance, and my non-confrontational demeanor may win over.

If I were living during the 1960s, and someone said that finishing the experiment were a requirement for a class, I could see myself going to the maximum out of fear for my future. If it meant protecting my own safety, I would do whatever was required. Again, out of fear. If the experimenters told me that I had to severely shock someone in order to protect someone else, that would be an even more complicated situation. In that case, tons of questions would arrive in my mind. It would be a very difficult predicament indeed! Interestingly, this dilemma was not what most Nazi soldiers gave as the reasoning behind why they committed such acts of horror. One soldier testifying at the Nuremburg trails said that he simply “did not think about it.” (Obeying Orders, n.d.)

The Milgram experiment was a very telling insight into the fuzzy borders of what exactly is and is not autonomy, consent, and manipulation. Since there are several levels of autonomy such as autonomy of action, autonomy of choice, and autonomy as effective deliberation (Cross, M., 2021), it seems easy for someone to be unaware of the fact that their decisions may have been deliberately manipulated. I believe that most people do not understand just how easily the human mind can be manipulated. How rather easy it is to cause change in behavior if someone or an organization of people are skilled and have access to the right tools. We may subjectively think that we are giving our consent when in reality, we are not. We may think we want to do something , only to find out later it was a bad choice that was controlled from the outside.

Anyone who has been in a relationship with a mentally abusive narcissist knows this. Manipulative tactics such as gaslighting can be combined with coercion by a perceived authority to create a maelstrom of manipulation. When it comes to figures of authority, what constitutes consent and autonomy can become very blurred. For example, the people in the experiment were not necessarily told that they had to do what they did. But, in our society, we have been programmed as children to respect authority figures in a blanket manner. In the 1960s, this sentiment may have been much more pronounced.

We have learned about different levels of coercion as well. I would even go as far as to say that beyond dispositional coercion there may be an even more subtle layer of coercion which is societal and programmed into us in the vulnerable time of childhood. What does this mean?

Since human beings are so deeply a social animal, and it is essential for our survival in many ways to be accepted by “the tribe” (imagined or real), these evolutionary behavioral mechanisms can be hijacked and manipulated quite easily if someone is highly intelligent, well versed in human behavior, and in a position of authority to exert influence over others. This is what occurred in the experiment. This is what occurs on the level of advertising a national politics on a daily basis.






References:

Cross, M. (2021). Levels of Autonomy. Retrieved from Canvas.


livewordcanada. (2011, December 12). Milgram Obedience Study [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCVlI-_4GZQ&t=1s


· Griggs, R. A. (2017). Milgram’s obedience study: A contentious classic reinterpreted. Teaching of Psychology, 44(1), 32-37. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628316677644


Obeying orders. (n.d.). Facing History and Ourselves. https://www.facinghistory.org/holocaust-and-human-behavior/chapter-10/obeying-orders


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