The Telegraph, 21 Nov 2012
A new study suggests that those who carry out atrocities, like Nazi concentration camp guards, weren’t just following orders but actively enjoyed their work.
Evidence suggests that Nazi functionaries had a good understanding of what they were doing and took pride in their work
A new study has shown that terrible acts involve not just obedience, but enthusiasm too.
The scientific paper – jointly authored by a Scottish university professor – challenges a long-held belief that human beings harm others because they are programmed to obey orders.
Professor Stephen Reicher, Professor in the School of Psychology at the University of St Andrews, and Professor Alex Haslam of the University of Queensland, Australia, have published the paper in the journal PLos-Biology on the nature of tyranny and evil.
It comes 50 years after social psychological studies showed that even decent people can engage in acts of extreme cruelty when instructed to do so by others.
The beliefs can be traced back to two research study conducted by Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Milgram’s research showed that people blindly obey the orders of an authority figure, while Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) revealed that people will take on abusive roles uncritically.
But, after a decade-long program of research, Reicher and Haslam have challenged the conclusions of both.
Professor Reicher said: “In short, people do harm not because they are unaware that they are doing wrong, but because they believe that they are doing right.
“It is this conviction that steels participants to do their dirty work, and that makes them act energetically and creatively to ensure its success.”
The study began when the two researchers ran their own prison experiment, which was broadcast by the BBC in 2002. This showed that people did not automatically slip into role.
They found the guards only acted tyrannically when they believed that harsh measures were necessary to create order.
More recently, Professors Reicher and Haslam have conducted a series of studies which revisit Milgram’s conclusions.
These show that people only go along with an authority when they believe that they are serving a greater good.
Paradoxically, they show that giving orders tends to undermine this belief and hence undermines obedience.
Although the findings of Zimbardo and Milgram remain highly influential, Professor Haslam suggests their conclusions do not hold up well under scrutiny.
“Our own research shows that tyranny does not result from blind conformity to rules and roles, it is a creative act of followership that flows from identification with authorities who represent vicious acts as virtuous,” he said.
Professor Reicher added: “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.
“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.”
The study authors said the findings were relevant to the atrocities carried out by the Nazis in the Second World War.
The researchers both add: “A series of thoroughgoing historical examinations have challenged the idea that Nazi bureaucrats were ever simply following orders.
“This may have been the defence they relied upon when seeking to minimize their culpability, but evidence suggests that functionaries like Eichmann had a very good understanding of what they were doing and took pride in the energy and application that they brought to their work.
“Typically too, roles and orders were vague, and hence for those who wanted to advance the Nazi cause — and not all did — creativity and imagination were required in order to work towards the regime’s assumed goals and to overcome the challenges associated with any given task.”
“Emblematic of this, the practical details of ‘the final solution’ were not handed down from on high, but had to be elaborated by Eichmann himself.
The St Andrews/Queensland findings, described as “a landmark paper” on the nature of tyranny and evil is published in the online journal PLos-Biology.
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