Study shows that crude loyalty to our social group and blind obedience make tyranny possible anywhere.Psychologists have struggled for decades to explain why ordinary people participate in atrocities such as the Nazi Holocaust or the Stalinist purges.
The new research draws on experiments such as the one in an Iowa school two decades ago when teacher Jane Elliott split her primary-school class into blue-eyed children, told they were superior, and brown-eyed children, told they were stupid and unattractive. Within hours the blue-eyed ‘in group’ were bullying their classmates.
Now experiments carried out in Britain reveal that most people obey authority unquestioningly and would also walk past an injured stranger who did not come from their own ethnic or social group.
The findings will shake the long-held British belief that this country is immune from the kinds of tyranny found in other parts of the world. A separate experiment – again filmed with secret cameras – shows the majority of people on a train complying with a stranger’s order to give up their seat. When the stranger is accompanied by a man in a uniform, not a single person chooses to disobey.
Producer Sheena McDonald said she was shocked by what the experiments showed: ‘The majority of people have a psychological tendency to obey and conform. All of us involved in the programme found ourselves looking at our own lives and examining whether we were beginning on the first step to tyranny.’
This and other research revealed in this BBC program along with ancillary interpretations of events in Bosnia, Rwanda and other areas where blind obedience and manipulation has led to horrific crimes.
Includes original research carried out in 1961 where volunteers are encouraged by authority figures to give electric shocks to hidden test subjects. Other similar results obtained in experiments at Stanford in 1971 using a simulated prison guard-prisoner setting.