Obeying Authority and the Rule of Thirds

soldier shooting civiliansHalf a century ago Adolf Eichmann was captured and taken from Argentina to an Israeli civilian court to answer for crimes against humanity and the Jewish people. Several decades earlier, Eichmann was a German Nazi lieutenant colonel tasked with the responsibility of managing much of the logistics of the Holocaust. During Eichmann’s cross-examination the prosecution asked him if he considered himself guilty of the murder of millions of people. Eichmann’s defense—that he was just “following orders” and that he “never did anything, great or small, without obtaining in advance express instructions from Adolf Hitler or any of (his) superiors.” His defense was rejected; he was found guilty and hanged the following year.

Inspired by the Eichmann trial, Stanley Milgram, a Social Psychology professor at Yale, performed an experiment aimed at answering the question: “Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?” In Milgram’s own words the experiment went as follows:

“A simple procedure is devised for studying obedience. A person comes to the laboratory and, in the context of a learning experiment, is told to give increasingly severe shocks to another person (who is actually an actor). The purpose of the experiment is to see how far a subject will proceed before refusing to comply with the experimenter’s instructions.”

The experiment was originally performed on 40 test subjects. Each one of them was told by Milgram (the authority in the room) to ask questions and administer shocks by increments of 15 volts to the person in the other room whenever that person answered a question incorrectly. This was to persist until the voltage reached the full 450 volts. The person in the other room, who was not really getting shocked, acted as though each shock was getting increasingly worse by screaming, complaining about his “heart condition”, and then after the 300 volt administration he went silent. Many of the test subjects, assuming that they were really inflicting pain or possible death on the man in the other room, felt bad and asked to quit the experiment. Milgram’s scripted response was that he took personal responsibility for whatever happened and that he required them to continue until the experiment was completed.

Of the 40 test subjects 26 administered the full 450 volt shock. That is a 65 percent compliance rate. After the experiment was published some astonished psychologists presumed that the experiment was done incorrectly so they tried their own variations and found almost identical results. Variations of the experiment have been conducted across time and cultures to see if the results would change. The compliance rate averages around two thirds.

It appears it is generally in our nature to obey an immoral command when that command is administered by an apparent authority figure. But should that relieve us of accountability? If you or I were in the shoes of Eichmann, Milgram’s test subjects, or acting as agents of some other despot we would probably tell ourselves that we would disobey. “I am different. I would act morally. I would not be acted upon.” we tell ourselves. But would we? Let us hope so- for our own sakes and for the sakes of others. Edmund Burk is oft-quoted as saying, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” It appears that evil also needs mindless agents willing to obey orders. Let us be neither the complacent good nor compliant to evil.

Looking at Milgram’s experiment alone might offer us little hope as to how we would likely behave if commanded to execute an undesirable action but an experiment performed by Indiana University psychology professor Steven Sherman suggests that “education can strengthen the power of conscience over authority” when we consciously decide ahead of time to do so. Interestingly, the experiment showed that consciously making that decision ahead of time dropped the compliance rate from 2/3 to 1/3.

While I am not a social psychologist nor do I have sufficient evidence to back up this theory- there does appear to be some proof, in my mind, to submit a theory of obeying authority and the rule of thirds. That is that there is a breaking point at which, for better or for worse, a group is broken up into three factions for a particular cause- the obedient, the neutral, and the defiant.

In a 2009 Rasmussen poll—31% of Texas voters said that their country had the right to secede from the union and form their own independent country. Similarly, a 2012 HuffPost/YouGov poll given to 1000 adult Americans across the country found that “29 percent said states should be allowed to secede if a majority of their residents supported secession, while 38 percent said they should not, and a third weren’t sure.”

Following the War for American Independence, British General James Robertson, in his testimony before a committee on the conduct of the war, estimated that the American population during the war was one-third for the cause of American independence, one-third neutral, and one-third loyalists.

John Adams similarly wrote in a letter to Thomas Jefferson on Nov 12, 1813 concerning the Continental Congress that “To draw the characters of them all would require a volume, and would now be considered as a caricature-print; one-third tories, another whigs, and the rest mongrels.”

In response to the former Delaware Continental Congressman Thomas McKean who believed that “the great mass of the people were zealous in the cause of America” Adams wrote in Aug 31, 1813 that:

“Upon the whole, if we allow two thirds of the people to have been with us in the revolution, is not the allowance ample? Are not the two thirds of the nation now with the administration? Divided we ever have been, and ever must be. Two thirds always had and will have more difficulty to struggle with the one third than with all our foreign enemies.”

Upon reflection Mckean agreed.

Referring to the French Revolution in an 1815 letter to Massachusetts Senator James Lloyd, John Adams estimated that the Americans were generally one third “averse” to the revolution, one third for the revolution out of “a hatred of the English”, and the “middle third” that were, as Adams put it “the soundest part of the nation” and “averse to war”.

Finally, the war of wars which has existed since before the beginning of man on Earth—The War in Heaven, as it is known amongst latter-day saints, repeats a similar social psychology statistic. One-third of God’s spirits rejected the appointment of Christ as their savior, were cast down to Earth, and became devils. As the Bible Dictionary points out:

“Although one-third of the spirits became devils, the remaining two-thirds were not all equally valiant, there being every degree of devotion to Christ and the Father among them.”

Could it be that of the two-thirds who accepted the appointment of Christ that half of them were fence-sitters? I truly don’t know but that’s what I might guess.

So if all of these examples teach us anything it might be these: 1) choose the right regardless of who your authority is and 2) be prepared to have anywhere from a third to two-thirds obey a different authority than you—whether that authority is natural law or man’s law. To conclude his findings Professor Sherman wrote:

“When you look before you leap or predict behavior before you behave, the leaping and the behavior are likely to be altered; and indications are that the behavior will become more socially desirable and morally acceptable.” (Sherman, On the Self-Erasing Nature of Errors of Prediction, p 220, 1980)

It’s time to ask ourselves- “What would I do…?”


2 Responses to Obeying Authority and the Rule of Thirds

  1. jamesglenn says:

    Here is a social experiment that ABC did as part of their “What Would You Do?” video series that shows how almost anyone would go to extreme lengths in obeying who they perceive to be an authority.

  2. Keith says:

    Interesting ideas. Truly, people do not think about agency — the gift and responsibility — and rarely consider the ramifications of how it is used.

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