My Lai Massacre

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Applying Psychology to Real World Issues

My Lai massacre was an example of real-world destructive behaviour which involved psychological processes such as obedience, which involved American soldiers in Vietnam. My Lai was a small village in Vietnam where American soldiers killed over 350 men, women, and children.

The soldiers were showing obedience to authority, where they were responding to a direct order from a figure with perceived authority with the fear of punishment and the belief in the legitimacy of authority motivating them to continue.

Milgram’s study of obedience (1963), had participants distributed electric shocks from 15 volts to 450 volts to confederates. The findings showed 65% of participants continued up to the maximum voltage of 450 but all participants went up to 300 volts with only 12.5% refusing to continue at the point the confederate first objected. They concluded that ordinary people are extremely obedient to authority even when asked to behave in an inhumane way. This suggests that it is not evil people that commit inhumane crimes but it is ordinary people who are just obeying orders. Taking this into consideration, this experiment suggests and explains why the soldiers obeyed the orders they were given; the behaviour of the perpetrators were the outcome of situation factors rather than dispositional factors.

Milgram argued that the following factors could help explain the situation at My Lai. Military training sets apart soldiers from all others to prevent opposition with authorities outside the military. The purpose of basic training is to break down the concepts of individuals and expand on the group or unit. During this time the soldiers spend a lot of time being disciplined. Following orders is the basis for the soldiers' actions. Cultural differences set the two sides, further apart and race was used to depersonalize the actions of war. The soldiers involved with this massacre felt that they were just following orders...
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