They either stopped right away or they kept going to the end.
Most of them ignored the screaming, and the pleas to stop, and the obvious indications that they were causing enormous pain and needless suffering.
They just kept cranking it up.
I’m talking, of course, about the participants in one of the most infamous psychological studies of all time: the Milgram shock experiment.
In 1961, Dr. Stanley Milgram set up a test in which participants administered electrical shocks to people. The participants were put in front of a control panel that had increments of voltage marked from 15 volts (“slight shock”) to 450 volts (“danger, severe shock”). The test subjects were told to increase the voltage gradually, delivering stronger and stronger jolts to a person hooked up to the machine in another room.
Now, it was an elaborate ruse, in that nobody actually got shocked, but the participants didn’t know that. They couldn’t see the person in the other room, but they heard him yelling and telling them to stop (again, the yelling was fake).
What Milgram found was that despite the screaming, most participants obeyed the researcher’s insistence to keep administering the shocks, and to keep increasing the voltage. Most people just kept inflicting pain, going all the way to the top level (450 volts) simply because they were told to.
Milgram’s experiment is regarded as a milestone in the study of human obedience. His findings, replicated many times in numerous other studies, proved that “people tend to obey orders from other people if they recognize their authority as morally right and/or legally based.” The disturbing conclusion is that it’s pretty easy to talk individuals into doing horrible things, and ordinary people are likely to follow orders given by an authority figure, even to the extent of killing an innocent human being.
These findings apply to such well-known atrocities as Nazi Germany, the Rwandan genocide, and the killing fields of Cambodia.
But they also apply to, for example, a wannabe despot who exhorts his followers to attack the U.S. Capitol in a deranged bid to overthrow the government. As many of those rioters later admitted, they rampaged through the Capitol because Trump told them to. They were “just following orders.”
And where have we heard that excuse before?
In any case, in the aftermath of the riot, 43 Republican Senators continued to just follow orders—continued to display abject obedience—by acquitting a man whom the vast majority of Americans want punished.
The GOP’s compliance is, of course, sadly predictable.
But there is another angle to Milgram’s experiment that is not often discussed, and it has direct relevance to the Republican Party.
You see, not everyone in Milgram’s experiment kept shocking the hell out of people just because they were told to.
About 18 percent of participants stopped when the indicator reached 150 volts, and the first yelps of pain came from the other room. Of those who went past 150 volts, the vast majority kept going to the end (450 volts).
Basically, people either stop at the first sign of trouble, or they never stop at all.
Similarly, many Republicans who begrudgingly voted for Trump in 2016 bailed on him circa Charlottesville (i.e., when he said there were “very fine people on both sides”), which was arguably the point when his racism could no longer be denied.
But if they stuck with Trump after he insisted that Nazis weren’t so bad? Well, at that point, they were in it to win it (if by “win it” you mean “excuse storming the Capitol”).
There is a psychological condition in which we refuse to alter our behavior, even if it is harmful or irrational, if we have emotionally invested in a course of action. In such cases, we go deeper and deeper, because to stop would be admitting that we have wasted our time and been wrong all along. And that’s just too psychologically distressing.
So those conservatives who stuck by Trump past Charlottesville, past the caging of babies, past the botched response to coronavirus, and past the myriad outrages and failures are now at the point that they will justify any abhorrent behavior to rationalize supporting Trump. To disavow him now would be to admit that they have spent the last four years cheering for a corrupt lunatic. And they just can’t have that.
So instead of conservatives coming to their senses, we have the Oregon Republican Party suggesting that the January 6 insurrection was a “false flag” operation by Democrats to discredit Trump. We have the Texas Republican Party openly supporting the QAnon conspiracy theory. We have GOP lawmakers in Ohio proposing an annual state holiday in Trump’s honor. We have Republicans giving a standing ovation to “a woman who trafficked in anti-Semitic and racist conspiracy theories, and questioned whether 9/11 and mass shootings were real events.”
To be sure, many right-wingers feel no distress at supporting Trump and his minions. They adore the man and crave more of his special brand of chaos and madness and hatred.
But for those conservatives who know, on some level, that all this hero worship of an obvious sociopathic incompetent was a severe mistake, but who didn’t get out while they could, well, they can’t stop now. They have to keep twisting the dial to deliver more shocks to the system.
And they will continue to just follow orders.
Featured image: Patrick Semansky/Associated Press