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Good People, Evil Actions

What leads good people to do horrible things?

Can anyone become a monster? We like to think that only unusual and horrible people do evil things. But what if anyone, even a basically good person, will perform evil actions?

I am worried about evil. I don’t mean simple run-of-the-mill bad things that we all do sometimes. The occasional lie, speeding, or insulting someone. I mean evil. Causing serious harm or killing someone. Choosing to harm or kill an entire group of people based on the color of their skin, their ethnic background, or their religion. In the last 100 years, there have been multiple episodes of genocide.

Here’s my question: Are there only a few truly monstrous people who will perform these acts of evil or is it something that almost anyone will do?

This was the fundamental theoretical question that Stanley Milgram (1963) asked in his research on obedience to authority. Milgram wanted to understand the holocaust. He opened his paper by focusing on the fact that “from 1933 to 1945 millions of innocent persons were systematically slaughtered on command.” He stated that the commands “originated in the mind of a single person, but they could only be carried out on a massive scale if a very large number of persons obeyed orders” (p. 371).

As I write this blog post, we have just passed the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor and the US entry into World War II. January 27th was Holocaust Remembrance Day, a time to reflect on the millions of Jews and others who were slaughtered by the Nazis. This month, February 2017, marks the 75th year since President Roosevelt signed the executive order that resulted in the internment of people of Japanese descent. The internment did not result in the execution of people as occurred during the Nazi holocaust. Nonetheless, I list the Japanese internment as another example of a time when basically good people did something evil. Innocent people were imprisoned. People lost their freedom and property based on the color of their skin, their ethnic background. Basically decent people were following orders. They obeyed authority.

Milgram studied how normal, good people following orders can harm another person. In his research, a single individual meets the experimenter and someone who appears to be another participant. But that other person is actually a confederate of the experimenter.

The experiment supposedly concerns the impact of punishment on learning. You are assigned the role of teacher and the confederate becomes the learner. The confederate learner is taken to an adjoining room, is strapped into a chair, and has electrodes attached to his wrist.

The task is for the confederate to memorize pairs of words. When the learner makes an error, you, the teacher, are asked to give him a shock. The shocks gradually escalate from 15 to 450 volts. Verbal labels are attached to the shock switches as well. These escalate from slight, to moderate, strong, intense, danger, and severe. The last two switches are simply labeled XXX.

When you apply a shock, the panel containing the switches makes a buzzing sound. In some versions of the experiment, you hear nothing until you reach the 20th shock at 300 volts. At that point, the learner pounds on the wall and he stops responding. In other versions, as you apply greater shocks, the confederate learner makes a series of predetermined responses. At 75 volts, he complains for the first time. At 150, he demands to be let out. At 180, he responds that he can’t stand the pain. Again at 300 volts, pounding can be heard and he no longer responds. You are told to treat a nonresponse as an error and continue administering shocks up to 450 volts. If you express concern, the experimenter asks you to continue.

Let me be clear: This research involved very strong deception. The confederate was never shocked. Given the deception and the stress participants experienced, people continue to debate the ethics of this type of research as well.

But imagine being a participant in the study. When do you think you would stop? When do you think most people will stop? What percentage of people do you think would continue all the way to the end? Make your estimate before reading further.

Milgram often described the basic design and then asked people when they thought most people would stop and what percentage they thought would continue all the way to the end — all the way to the XXX 450 volts, the person not responding, and the point of apparent harm. Almost everyone believes that very few people would continue to the end. When Milgram asked introductory psychology students how many people would continue to the end, their estimates ranged from 0 to 3%. When he surveyed professional psychiatrists, they estimated that most people would stop at the 10th shock when the confederate first complained. On average the psychiatrists estimated that less than 1% would continue to the end. We believe there are very few people who would do something so clearly cruel.

This is what makes the actual results completely disturbing and important. No one stopped when the confederate first asked to stop. No one stopped when the confederate cried in pain. A few participants finally stopped at the 20th shock — at 300 volts, when the confederate refused to answer and pounded on the wall. But only 12.5% stopped then. Most continued. Horrifyingly, 65% continued to the end.

You do not have to search for villains to find people to commit atrocities. Evil is not always a characteristic of a person. Evil can exist in the situation. In some situations, even good people will commit evil acts. The holocaust wasn’t perpetrated only by monsters. The people who locked up citizens of Japanese descent weren’t awful human beings. Basically decent people participated in these actions.

You should keep in mind that Milgram’s experiment isn’t that powerful of a situation. There were no threats to the participants. They wouldn’t lose their jobs for stopping. No one threatened their families. The participants were stressed, often expressed concern for the confederate, and frequently asked to stop. But at a calm request from the experimenter, they nonetheless continued.

Milgram and many others have endeavored to understand why people obey. I want to note a few aspects of the situation that Milgram (1974) thought were particularly important. First, the participant becomes absorbed in doing the task. They follow through carefully. This seems to be what Hannah Arendt described as the “banality of evil.” Evil is performed by people carefully following orders to perform small actions correctly. Milgram also noted that people seem to pass their moral judgment to the authority figure. Once engaged in the task, they focus on doing their job well. They do not focus on the ethics of the overall situation. Crucially, many of the participants started to see the confederate as deserving of the punishments. They saw him as different and unworthy. Imagine highlighting how a group of people is different and a threat. This will make it easier for people to see them as deserving of what happens to them.

If you want to forestall evil and if you want to not simply follow orders, then you have to break the situation. You should keep in mind the big picture, not just the small actions you’re performing. You must retain your own ethical responsibility. Critically, you must always see other humans as deserving of fair and reasonable treatment. The best defense against committing atrocities may be a strong sense of empathy for all people. Valuing diversity and focusing on similarities may enable you to resist efforts to demonize individuals and groups.

I don’t teach and write about Milgram’s obedience studies merely as a history lesson. This isn’t just about the holocaust, other historical instances of genocide, and the Japanese internment. Obedience to authority is completely contemporary. I teach my students so that history won’t repeat itself. I write so that I always remember. Knowing about Milgram’s studies is critical. You should be prepared in case you ever find yourself in a situation when obedience means violating your own ethical standards.

Recently, I’ve thought frequently about obedience to authority. I’ve watched how people are responding to the Syrian refugee crisis. I’ve worried as I’ve read the news concerning how people in my country are describing and treating undocumented immigrants, Muslims, and other people who are different. I teach so that we learn from the past.

In his writing, Milgram (1965) concluded:

"The results are to this author disturbing. They raise the possibility that human nature, or more specifically, the kind of character produced in American democratic society, cannot be counted on to insulate its citizens from brutality and inhumane treatment at the direction of malevolent authority. A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act and without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority. If in this study an anonymous experimenter could successfully command adults to subdue a fifty-year-old man, and force on him painful electric shocks against his protests, one can only wonder what government, with its vastly greater authority and prestige, can command of it subjects. There is, of course, the extremely important question of whether malevolent political institutions could or would arise in American society (p 75).”

If you are interested in learning more about Milgram’s work, a movie that focused on the obedience studies and his other research was released in 2015. I strongly recommend watching The Experimenter.


Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-378.

Milgram, S. (1965). Some conditions of obedience and disobedience to authority. Human Relations, 18, 57-76.

Milgram, S. (1974). The dilemma of obedience. The Phi Delta Kappan, 55, 603-606