The power of authority

Some famous behavioural experiments show how bad governments undermine themselves by earning the resentment of good people made to do bad things.

The famous Milgram experiment that got ordinary people to administer electric shocks to others has been questioned again recently.

None of the attempts to reinterpret or undermine the studies change the fact that at least 40% of people can be coerced, even against their judgement or values.

The research has had a massive impact because it seems to prove that confident governance can make people do bad things. People will just follow orders.

The new questions focus on the impact on participants in the La Trobe version of the experiment. Some claim to have been traumatised by the experience, by what they thought they had done to others, or by shame at being used.

These new claims are intriguing because they add to the experiment results. They have also prompted me to consider the implications for governments.

Firstly, the new claims demonstrate that people reinterpret themselves constantly, and blame others for their mistakes.

Secondly, they show that our moral code, and sense of self-worth, is very deep. The resentment of participants reveals the soul-corrupting nature of abuse of power. It shows that although people can be made to do anything, they will not feel good about it, and will grow resentful.

In psychological terms, following the rule of an authority you think is unworthy, makes you feel bad about yourself, and you in turn blame the authority (or others).

Perhaps these factors explain why governments of all types can force social or economic change, but why, when it comes apart, it does so with such rapid savageness.

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