In a previous post we discussed Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment investigating obedience to Authority, and suggested that it helped to explain why good people, when they become Scientologists, comply with orders that have bad consequences for others.
Milgram created a machine that administered convincing, but phoney electric shocks to an actor who pretended to be in pain. Nobody was at any risk.
His experimental subjects were ordinary people who were required to administer shocks in the course of an ‘experiment into learning’. The experimental procedure manipulated them into gradually increase the intensity of those shocks until they (apparently) reached a dangerous level.
When the experimental subjects began to doubt the morality of what they were doing, an ‘authority figure’ (the scientist in charge of the experiment) insisted that the procedure must continue.
Incredibly, 68% of continued to administer shocks all the way up a potentially lethal 450V.
There is an crucial feature of this experiment that is strongly enphasised by Scientology, and it explains a lot about its power to persuade members to comply to demands that go against their basic personality.
The Importance of Graduated Steps
Steven Gilbert has pointed out an crucial reason why the level of compliance in the Milgram experiment was so incredibly high. The machine that was ‘invented’ for the experiment forced the operators to proceed by a series of small, incremental steps.
The ordinary people who participated in the experiment started by throwing the first switch on the left. This seemed to administer only a small shock. Step by step, one switch at a time, they were told to work their way to the right, gradually increasing the (apparent) intensity of the shocks.
Gilbert speculates that, if the subjects has been ordered to administer the 450V shock right at the beginning hardly anyone would have complied. He’s probably right.
The ordinary people who took part in the Milgram experiment probably thought of themselves as kind, reasonable people. Once they had been manoeuvred into administering what they thought were painful shocks they had to explain to themselves why they had done a cruel thing.
They rationalised their behaviour (and saved their self-esteem) by telling themselves that their obedience was advancing science – and transferred the responsibility for their actions to the scientists. They saved the situation by telling themselves that they were only following orders and went all the way up to 450V.
The way to hell is not a road, but a staircase. We take it one small step at a time – and it’s easier to keep going down, than it is to change your mind, and climb back up.
Scientology – How it Persuades you to Descend, One Small Step at a Time
Bryan Wilson describes a basic tenet of Scientology. This is one of the most fundamental ideas that every Scientologist is taught at the beginning of their career and are expected to follow throughout their involvement. He describes Scientology as:
[…] an elaborate system of instruction, graded, set out, and scored in apparently rational order of increasing complexity.
Wilson, Bryan (1989). Religion in sociological perspective. Oxford University Press.
L Ron Hubbard wrote extensively about the (supposed) importance of learning in a series of stages, from basic to advanced, and thoroughly understanding what you have covered before moving on to the next stage. Everything has to be approached ‘on a gradient’.
This idea is the basis of so-called ‘Study Tech’. This is one of the first thing thing that Scientologists learn, and they are required to apply it to practically everything, without exception (and without question) from that moment on. Each of the steps that are taken when you learn Scientology are lined up, in order, like the switches in Milgram’s electric shock machine.
Once you have taken the early courses, ideas that would once have seemed bizarre become familiar. You can now accept the next step, which would once have appeared to be weird, without demur. And so on, step by step until you have completely lost perspective.
Also, unlike Milgram’s Machine, Scientology is deceptive. You can clearly see that the voltage is going to increase by just looking at the machine. Scientology conceals the things that it expects you to do next. You are told that, if you look at teachings that you have not been prepared for by the Church you will become confused – or even seriously harmed (Hubbard is on record as warning that anyone who learns reads the OT3 materials without being properly prepared will die of pneumonia as a result).
Scientology’s secret teachings have been extensively leaked. Many of them are available elsewhere on this website. However, Scientologists have been persuaded to ignore these materials ‘for their own good’. Also, Church doctrine concerning “Verbal Tech” prohibits believers from even talking to each other about the material of Scientology.
Good people who become Scientologists are manipulated into doing evil things by persuading them to make a small compromise. Then, step by step, the Church builds upon it. Gradually, members rationalise the harm that their obedience has caused to others by transferring the responsibility for their actions to the ‘authority’ of the Church of Scientology. They themselves are ‘only following orders’.
At some point, they will become aware of the practical consequences of criticizing the Church – that, if they do, they could lose contact with friends, or even family through the policy of ‘Disconnection‘ or be subject to legal and extra-legal harassment mandated by the policy of ‘Fair Game‘.
Once you are trapped in this impossible position cognitive dissonance takes over. Scientologists will now justify the most bizarre beliefs and reprehensible behaviour. They are not (necessarily) mad, or bad. They are victims of a extreme situation that makes it easy to compromise yourself, and very hard to go back. This kind of trap is a lesson to us all. Don’t make the first compromise and, if you find you have, cut your losses. The alternative is to lose yourself completely.
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin | Vol. 7 No. 4, December 1981, 690-695
Another Look at the Milgram Obedience Studies: The Role of the Gradated Series of Shocks
Steven J. Gilbert State University College Oneonta, NY