Mil­gram ef­fect and Trump sup­port­ers

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Jack Mather Dr. Jack Mather is a sur­geon at the Univer­sity of Mary­land Med­i­cal Cen­ter’s R Adams Cow­ley Shock Trauma Cen­ter. His email is jp­mather@gmail.com.

Nine­teen sixty-one was a re­mark­able year. In the U.S., Free­dom Rid­ers were pro­gress­ing the cause of civil rights and Kennedy was dream­ing about the moon. Hu­mans, for the first time, sailed with the stars and or­bited our planet. Around the world, the Cold War was ramp­ing up its fe­roc­ity, walls were be­ing built in Ber­lin, and two nations were flex­ing their nu­clear arms. Against this back­drop, in a small lab­o­ra­tory at Yale, a young psy­chol­o­gist would rev­o­lu­tion­ize our con­cept of obe­di­ence and au­thor­ity. Stan­ley Mil­gram was all of 28 years old and had just com­pleted his Ph.D. in the bur­geon­ing field of so­cial psy­chol­ogy.

Mil­gram’s in­ter­est in obe­di­ence to au­thor­ity re­flected a ma­jor event one year ear­lier: the trial of Adolf Eich­mann. Mil­gram grew up a Jew dur­ing an era of se­vere per­se­cu­tion, cul­mi­nat­ing in the mass mur­der of mil­lions of Jews across Europe. Fol­low­ing World War II, many peo­ple, in­clud­ing Mil­gram, asked how so many peo­ple would will­ingly participate in the mass slaugh­ter of mil­lions of in­no­cent peo­ple.

Eich­mann was one of the prin­ci­pal de­ter­mi­nants of the Holo­caust and dur­ing his trial would claim that he was only “guilty of hav­ing been obe­di­ent.” Though he would hang for his role in per­pe­trat­ing the Holo­caust, he was just one of many who would claim that they were just fol­low­ing com­mands. But to what ex­tent does obe­di­ence to au­thor­ity re­ally ex­plain blind de­vo­tion? And can such blind de­vo­tion re­ally hap­pen on such a large scale?

Thus, Stan­ley Mil­gram de­vel­oped a so­cial ex­per­i­ment to test the bound­aries of obe­di­ence to au­thor­ity. Vol­un­teers were so­licited un­der the guise of test­ing me­mory and learn­ing. Once in Mil­gram’s lab, th­ese vol­un­teers were asked to test the me­mory of a sec­ond par­tic­i­pant, the “stu­dent” (an ac­tor). With every wrong an­swer, the vol­un­teer was to ad­min­is­ter in­creas­ingly painful elec­tri­cal shocks to the stu­dent. De­spite shouts of pain and re­quests to stop, the vol­un­teer was prod­ded to con­tinue (it was un­known to the vol­un­teer that the shocks were not real) up to a max­i­mum of 450-volts. Sur­pris­ingly, 65 per­cent of par­tic­i­pants con­tin­ued to shock up to the max­i­mum. There were no pre­dictable traits for those who con­tin­ued to obey. Ed­u­ca­tion or so­cial sta­tus had no ef­fect on the fi­nal re­sult. As Mil­gram wrote, “for many persons obe­di­ence may be a deeply in­grained be­hav­ior ten­dency, in­deed, a pre­po­tent im­pulse over­rid­ing train­ing in ethics, sym­pa­thy and moral con­duct.”

Re­turn to present day and our cur­rent pres­i­den­tial elec­tion bat­tle. Don­ald Trump’s in­ex­pli­ca­ble rise has ef­fec­tively been a na­tion-wide Mil­gram ex­per­i­ment. He is not par­tic­u­larly pres­i­den­tial, he lacks con­crete un­der­stand­ing of pol­icy, and he has not gen­er­ated any de­tailed plans about how he might run the coun­try. But to the con­stituents who sup­port him, none of this mat­ters. His au­thor­ity is based on the im­age he projects and, much like Mil­gram’s ex­per­i­ment, it is ir­rel­e­vant whether this im­age is based in re­al­ity or not. Un­like pre­vi­ous pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates, Mr. Trump’s name has celebrity and stay­ing power. His is a house­hold name and one which, for the main­stream per­son who knows lit­tle about him, is syn­ony­mous with suc­cess and au­thor­ity. His trade­mark line “You’re fired!” com­mands obe­di­ence. And his fol­low­ers have al­ready demon­strated that they will con­tinue to in­crease the “shock” as long as The Don­ald will take re­spon­si­bil­ity for it.

Mr. Trump’s sup­port­ers fall al­most uni­ver­sally into what Mil­gram called an “agen­tic” state in which a per­son al­lows an­other in­di­vid­ual to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for, and dic­tate the di­rec­tion of, their ac­tions. They ra­tio­nal­ize and at­tempt to val­i­date the ac­tions of their au­thor­ity fig­ure. We­need not be lim­ited to our cur­rent elec­tion cy­cle to see the real world ef­fects of blindly fol­low­ing the Pied Piper. The Venezue­lans fol­lowed Chavez off of the cliff and the Cubans, Cas­tro. Hitler moved the masses with ag­gres­sive pro­pa­ganda, hate-filled speech and rep­e­ti­tion of false themes. When Mr. Trump threat­ens to ex­cise Mus­lims from this coun­try or to build walls to pre­vent im­mi­grants from en­ter­ing, when he ha­rangues vet­er­ans for their sac­ri­fices while ex­tolling the virtues of dic­ta­tors and oli­garchs, when he says that he alone can “fix” Amer­ica, he is plac­ing the world in the elec­tri­cal chair and prod­ding the Amer­i­can masses to keep ramp­ing up the volts. Mr. Trump’s rhetoric and in­ten­tions are pro­foundly con­cern­ing. The great­est danger, how­ever, is our will­ing­ness to blindly obey. We must over­come this now so we will not re­gret it later.

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