The Power of Situations

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Akasha Dykes
November, 27, 2012
Geoffrey McNeil
English 1030
The Power of Situations
In any society, obedience and authority is necessary in order to function. Without obedience no individual would be able to follow the rules of the society. Without authority, individuals could not be forced to obey. Authority and obedience may be a necessity, but when is it to much? Is there a point where people should disobey the authority in there society? There have been experiments that relate to the social problems of obedience and authority. The Milgram Experiment, The Good Samaritan Experiment, and The Stanford Prison Experiment are all examples that focus on social problems, situational power, and human nature. A common conclusion among the examples is that a situation has the power to make ordinary people do unthinkable things.

The Milgram Experiment was conducted by a Yale University Psychologist, Stanley Milgram, in July, 1961. The experiment was set up like this; The experimenter orders the teacher, who is the subject of the experiment, to give what they believe to be painful electric shocks to a learner. The subject believes that for each wrong answer, the learner is receiving actual electric shocks, though in reality there were no such punishments because the learner is actually an actor in on the experiment. Being separated from the subject, the creators of the experiment set up a tape recorder integrated with the electro-shock generator, which played pre-recorded sounds for each shock level. The subject is instructed to increase shock intensity with each wrong answer from the learner, until the maximum of 450 volts is reached. The results are astounding; almost all of the subjects that participated reached the maximum level of the shock voltage, with only a few that refused to finish the experiment.

The results of the Milgram experiment show a darker side of obedience. Society has taught people how to be obedient of authority, but has neglected to teach about how important it is to be disobedient in certain situations. The Milgram Experiment puts people in a situation where they seemingly have no authority, or responsibility. When the authority figure commands them to do something, they do it. Even if they believe that they are hurting someone else and become distressed by it, they still listen to the demands. These people that continue to listen, even when they know it is morally wrong, become an instrument and allow themselves to be used by authority. It was originally thought that more people would disobey in this situation, because most people believe that they would be strong enough to disobey. However, the results are clear about the fact that there are only a few out of many that will be able to disobey in this situation, the majority will conform. The question: What is it about human nature that makes it so easy to obey orders, even when we know it’s wrong? As the experiment shows, few people can determine the difference between when they are acting in accordance to their personal beliefs, or when there are weakly submitting to authority.

The Good Samaritan Experiment was conducted in 1968 by John Darley and Bibb Latane. In the experiment they had men from Columbia University complete a questionnaire in a room either alone or with two strangers. While they were completing the questionnaire smoke was pumped into the room from a side door. When students were working alone they often looked around the room and as a result, noticed the smoke almost immediately, and often they took action to tell the person in charge. When students were working with others in the room, they looked around less often and therefore saw the smoke later than before; they were also less likely to take action to inform the person in charge about the smoke. Is there something in human nature that can keep us from helping? This experiment suggests that groups and individuals act differently in emergency situations. One is more...
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