We all remember the evil boys who threw rocks at Forrest Gump. They chased him and called him names. And I’ve previously written how Forrest disobeyed a direct order from Lt. Dan while serving in Vietnam – he had to find Bubba!
While listening to the audio book 50 Psychology Classics by Tom Butler-Bowdon, I learned about Stanley Milgram and his 1974 book Obedience to Authority. Starting in 1961, Milgram designed and conducted a series of social psychological experiments at Yale University. These controversial experiments (full description) had three participants: an experimenter would order a teacher to give (fake) electrical shocks to a learner. The teacher was the actual subject of the experiment. The experimenter and the learner were participants and actors. No real electrical shocks were actually given (video description). But the results were astonishing and form the basis for Milgram’s theories on human nature, human behavior, and the basis for his book.
I’ve put together a list of eight conclusions from Milgram’s theories that have given me a better understanding of human nature – and why it’s easier for us humans to follow evil than to stand up for that which we know is right.
- It is human nature to want to follow authority (and most people simply do).
- We spend the first twenty years of our lives doing what we’re told (parents, teachers). Our brains are hardwired to accept authority.
- Individually we take personal responsibility. But in a group setting, we tend to become agents for the group.
- Milgram’s experiments showed that individual morality doesn’t disappear, but it reorients itself towards the authority figure (not against a victim).
- We say things to ourselves like, “I’m just following orders.” We have a strong desire to please the boss.
- We like to follow leaders. Human beings are communal by nature. We want to fit in with the group.
- We’ve been taught how to obey authority. But we’ve not been taught how to disobey authority – even when authority is evil (e.g., Hitler).
- The hero follows his own beliefs and is willing to go against the group/authority.
If we are aware of our natural tendencies to follow authority, then we are less likely to blindly follow orders when it goes against our conscience.
If this is indeed the case, then we can surmise that only one of the boys throwing rocks was truly evil and the other two just followed along. What they did was still wrong, but there is a high likelihood that they would not have initiated throwing rocks on their own. They simply followed.
And Forrest Gump was the hero. He is the rare exception who is willing to disobey a direct order from authority and do the right thing. In this case, it was to try to save his friend’s life.
It takes Gumption to follow one’s conscience and stand up to authority when authority is wrong.
Why do we continue to follow evil when we know it’s wrong?
Why is standing up against the crowd so difficult? Even when it’s the right thing to do?
Are you willing to stand up for what is right?
Next Blog Title: General Nathan Bedford Forrest
Next Blog Date: May 26, 2011
Steve Weber is a Forrest Gump tribute artist, speaker, event maker, blogger, and aspiring author. He uses the simple, yet powerful, truths of Forrest Gump to turn meetings into events. You can learn more at SpeakingGump.com.