After the Second World War, when the full horrors of the Nazi Holocaust became widely known, the world struggled to find an explanation for the behaviour of the apparently ‘normal’ people who had participated (or were complicit) in cruelty, torture and genocide on an industrial scale.
Many theories were proposed – notably that German culture was responsible for creating an ‘authoritarian personality’ which led people to obey orders without question.
Stanley Milgram stepped in to this debate with a controversial experiment. His results were astonishing, and required a complete reappraisal of what we thought we knew about human behaviour.
This experiment also helps us understand why people who join Scientology find themselves acting in ways that are completely out of character – because they are acting ‘under orders’ from the church hierarchy.
Milgram had a convincing (dummy) electric shock machine built, covered in switches and warning signs and complete with sound effects. The switches apparently delivered a range of shocks, beginning at very low voltages, and working gradually up to a lethal 450 Volts. In fact the machine was totally harmless.
Next, Milgram hired an actor, who was commissioned to pretend to have been shocked. He was to initially flinch from the low voltages and, as the shocks increased, to start to cry out in pain. As the voltage neared a ‘dangerous’ level started to beg for mercy, and claim to suffer from a heart condition.
Anyone who was not in on the experiment, had every reason to believe that, if the machine was connected to a person, that is was capable of hurting and eventually killing them.
The final step was to advertise for ordinary people to participate in an experiment (for a small fee) to investigate ” […]memory and learning”.
Participants were sat in front of the ‘electric shock machine’. The actor sat close by, at the same desk, and was connected to the machine.
The participant was then required to read from a list of questions.
- If the actor gave the right answer, he moved on to the next question.
- If the actor gave the wrong answer, the participant was required to throw one of the switches, and give him a ‘shock’
- The ‘shock’ was increased by one step for every wrong answer.
Since the actor was a stooge for the experimenters, he always gave enough wrong answers for the ‘voltage’ to eventually reach a lethal level of 450V.
As, you might expect, as the the intensity of the shock, increased and the actor began to appear more agitated, participants became unwilling to continue. When they began to question the procedure, or refused to continue , a man in a white coat entered the room. He replied to any concerns with one of a number of stock phrases. This was the point of the experiment – to see how ordinary Americans would respond to orders from an ‘authority figure’.
Bearing in mind that the ‘authority figure’ was only a university scientist with little real power (unlike, for example, a police officer) all of the experts consulted expected that the overwhelming majority of participants would refuse to deliver ‘dangerous’ shocks and would definitely not go on to lethal levels.
The results are revealed in the picture below. Before you look, it’s worth guessing for yourself what percentage of the participants obeyed their instructions to go all the way up to a ‘lethal’ 450V.
Film footage of the experiment exists (there are links at the bottom of the page) which show agonised people begging to be released from their obligations. Sometimes the actor was pleading a heart condition, and begging the experimental subject to stop.
In most cases, the ‘man in the white coat’ merely had to repeat his stock phrase and they continued to apply shocks. They clearly don’t want to. They were clearly profoundly upset at what they were doing. They did it anyway.
This experiment had been repeated, with variations, in many cultures over many years. The only thing that seems to make a difference is how close together the subject and the actor are placed. If they are almost touching (as in the picture above) 68% obedience is obtained. It the actor is placed in an adjacent room, and can only be heard shouting and pleading through a thin dividing wall, this percentage actually increases. More people obey.
Relevance to Scientology
This experiment reveals that more than half of ‘normal’ people are prepared, in the right circumstances, to do something that is clearly wrong when told to do so by a person whom they perceive to be in authority over them.
Scientology has a very hierarchical structure. The most senior ‘executive’ posts in the organisation are in fact filled by members of the ‘Sea Org’, who wear elaborate uniforms modelled on those worn by the US Navy – complete with ranks and medal ribbons. Sea Org ‘discipline’ is harsh to the point of abuse
Even Scientology ‘Orgs’ are required to display an ‘Org Board’ (a sort of organisational chart) in a prominent place so that everyone knows their place in the hierarchy at all times.
The ‘Org Board’ requires there be a department within every Scientology organisation (called ‘Ethics’) that deals severely with any and all disobedience. ‘Ethics Officers’ dispense a variety of punishments these include (but are not limited to):
- Unpaid overtime
- Manual labour
- ‘Disconnection’ (shunning – friends must write a letter formally warning the offender that they will never communicate with them again, in any way, until they redeem themselves in the eyes of the Church)
- ‘Fair Game’ (Scientologists are permitted to persecute the offender without penalty – in fact the Church is known for organising elaborate campaigns of persecution against people who reveal its secrets or damage its image).
The Church of Scientology is replete with authority figures who, for all practical purposes. wield more power over Scientologists than many public officials. If people have a tendency to submit to authority, Scientology exploits this to the limit.
Once they are part of Scientology, it is hardly surprising that good people find themselves obeying orders to do evil things.
It’s easy to think that, surely, this couldn’t happen today.
Here is a reproduction of the experiment, staged for a British television series in 2009.
Judge for yourself
It should be noted that the exercise of authority is very low key. No threats, no shouted orders, no harassment. Also, the participants have nothing to lose by walking out except the small payment they have been offered for taking part.
If this experiment was repeated in an authoritarian environment (e.g. Scientology) obedience rates might be a lot higher.
Title: Obedience to Authority
Author: Stanley Milgram