Contesting the “Nature” Of Conformity : What Milgram & Zimbardo’s Studies Really Show

The banality of evil thesis shocks us by claiming that decent people can be transformed into oppressors as a result of their “natural” conformity to the roles and rules handed down by authorities. More particularly, the inclination to conform is thought to suppress oppressors’ ability to engage intellectually with the fact that what they are doing is wrong.

Although it remains highly influential, this thesis loses credibility under close empirical scrutiny. On the one hand, it ignores copious evidence of resistance even in studies held up as demonstrating that conformity is inevitable [17]. On the other hand, it ignores the evidence that those who do heed authority in doing evil do so knowingly not blindly, actively not passively, creatively not automatically. They do so out of belief not by nature, out of choice not by necessity. In short, they should be seen—and judged—as engaged followers not as blind conformists [45].

What was truly frightening about Eichmann was not that he was unaware of what he was doing, but rather that he knew what he was doing and believed it to be right. Indeed, his one regret, expressed prior to his trial, was that he had not killed more Jews [19]. Equally, what is shocking about Milgram’s experiments is that rather than being distressed by their actions [46], participants could be led to construe them as “service” in the cause of “goodness.”

To understand tyranny, then, we need to transcend the prevailing orthodoxy that this derives from something for which humans have a natural inclination—a “Lucifer effect” to which they succumb thoughtlessly and helplessly (and for which, therefore, they cannot be held accountable). Instead, we need to understand two sets of inter-related processes: those by which authorities advocate oppression of others and those that lead followers to identify with these authorities. How did Milgram and Zimbardo justify the harmful acts they required of their participants and why did participants identify with them—some more than others?

These questions are complex and full answers fall beyond the scope of this essay. Yet, regarding advocacy, it is striking how destructive acts were presented as constructive, particularly in Milgram’s case, where scientific progress was the warrant for abuse. Regarding identification, this reflects several elements: the personal histories of individuals that render some group memberships more plausible than others as a source of self-definition; the relationship between the identities on offer in the immediate context and other identities that are held and valued in other contexts; and the structure of the local context that makes certain ways of orienting oneself to the social world seem more “fitting” than others [41],[47],[48].

At root, the fundamental point is that tyranny does not flourish because perpetrators are helpless and ignorant of their actions. It flourishes because they actively identify with those who promote vicious acts as virtuous [49]. It is this conviction that steels participants to do their dirty work and that makes them work energetically and creatively to ensure its success. Moreover, this work is something for which they actively wish to be held accountable—so long as it secures the approbation of those in power.

Contesting the “Nature” Of Conformity: What Milgram and Zimbardo’s Studies Really Show
S. Alexander Haslam

School of Psychology, University of Queensland, St. Lucia, Australia
Stephen. D. Reicher
School of Psychology, University of St. Andrews, St Andrews, Scotland

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