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The psychology of obedience to authority: lessons learned from the Holocaust

Nazi Germany was a true source of critical inquiry for academics worldwide. The work of Adorno et al. about authoritarianism through psychoanalytic theory,  and the work of Stanley Milgram about obedience influenced by situational factors are at the core of modern forensic psychology practice. Authoritarianism can be described as an attitude spectrum encompassing all types of prejudices, that is, xenophobia; as well as extreme ideologies in regards to discipline and traditions, that is, conventionalism (McAvoy, 2012). This essay seeks to explore the studies conducted by the mentioned above pioneers of forensic psychology during the post-war period in relation to the holocaust events. 

Xenophobic conventionalism was the main motivation driving the mass assassination of innocent people during WWII. This inspired Sanford to invite Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik and Levinson to join his psychological investigation project in the US, and they became a team often cited as “Adorno et al.” due to Harvard alphabetical referencing rules. They were interested in uncovering the unconscious psychopathology of war criminals, and this led them to create the F-scale (McAvoy, 2012). Based on psychoanalytic theory, they administered questionnaires and interviews to the masses in order to validate their hypotheses which drew a  correlation between extreme childhood trauma and overboard adult attitudes to authority (McAvoy, 2012). The trials being held at Nuremberg, Germany, were a powerful motivator behind social psychology research after the war (Bayard, 2012). Stanley Milgram studied Adorno et al.’s work meticulously and was interested in understanding authoritarian obedience and how it related to irresponsible cruelty. After watching the globally broadcasted trial of Adolf Eichmann in television during 1961, Milgram realised that ordinary people were capable of committing great acts of violence when following orders (Banyard, 2012).  Through systematic procedures and pressure from authoritarian figures, a death toll that today approximates seventeen million minority individuals was achieved. Homosexuals, dissenters, jews, activists, disabled people, and foreigners; all brutally discriminated against and murdered (Holocaust Encyclopedia, 2019). Milgram designed a social experiment in order to better understand the link between conscience, executive obedience, and authority in organised war crimes.  

Adorno et al. (1950, p. V) saw prejudice as a mental health virus: “Even a social disease has its periods of quiescence during which the social scientists […] can study it […] to prevent or reduce the virulence of the next outbreak”. They devised the F-scale with its subscales of ethnocentrism, politico-conservatism, and antisemitism (McAvoy, 2012). They used both, quantitative and qualitative methods: “Individuals were studied by means of interviews and special clinical techniques for revealing underlying wishes, fears, and defenses; groups were studied by means of questionnaires” (Adorno et al., 1950, p. 12). Tests had statements with predetermined scores that individuals could agree or disagree with. The interviews allowed the researchers to double-check whether a participant’s general demeanor matched the anti-democratic scores. Nevertheless, the overall study was not enough to determine the direction of the effect of authoritarianism, nor could this predict whether someone with the potential for fascism would actually act on their attitudes and join a fascist movement (McAvoy, 2012). “The modification of the potentially fascist structure cannot be achieved by psychological means alone. The task is comparable to that of eliminating neurosis, or delinquency, or nationalism from the world” (Adorno et al., 1950, p. 975). 

Social psychologist Stanley Milgram was impacted by such results. He modified the F-scale that Adorno et al. had created (Milgram, n.d.).  After witnessing the trial of ordinary-looking Adolf Eichmann, Milgram (1962) wanted to understand the difference between free and forced obedience in everyday life. He (Milgram, 1965, p. 57) reported: “In its more general form the problem may be defined thus: If X tells Y to hurt Z, under what conditions will Y carry out the command of X and under what conditions will he refuse [?]”. Questions like these had led him to design the base condition to test 40 normal-looking young males in 1962. They each would arrive at Yale University and would be greeted by an experimenter wearing a white coat. An actor played the role of fellow participant.  Everything was standardised, from the laboratory, to the confederates, and the apparatus (Banyard, 2012). Participants were asked to administer potentially lethal electric shocks to the actor playing learner. The electric shock machine looked realistic, but was only a prop. Milgram found that indeed normal people had the potential to harm with some pressure from an authority figure. Milgram (1963, p. 371) called this phenomena “destructive obedience in the laboratory”. He then administered the questionnaires to ratify the participants’ valence. 

The studies conducted by Adorno et al. (authoritarianism) and Stanley Milgram (obedience) gave forensic psychologists much detail in terms of personality, situational factors/influences, authority, and compliance in the system  (Byford, 2017). Monetary incentives were offered to participants in both studies: “This was the only way to insure that the staff of the Study would not be conscience-stricken” (Adorno et al., 1950, p. 26). WWII was a common theme in both approaches: “Gas chambers were built, death camps were guarded, daily quotas of corpses were produced with the same efficiency as the manufacture of appliances […] Obedience is the psychological mechanism that links individual action to political purpose” (Milgram, 1963, p. 371). Both experiments were carried out in the US, made use of pen and paper questionnaires, and included qualitative assessments; although the conditions, apparatuses, and  procedures were completely different. The results were controversial enough to elicit a lot of attention from the general public in both cases. Adorno et al.’s work was criticised for being based on psychoanalytic theory, and for the risk of acquiescence response bias (McAvoy, 2012). Milgram’s work got him in serious ethical trouble due to what he was able to uncover about his subjects; and how this impacted their real life, identities, and reputations (Banyard, 2012). Both teams reported their findings through writing, although Milgram also created a documentary about his experiment (Obedience, 1962). 

As it can be observed, there are many substantial similarities between Adorno et al.’s and Milgram’s experiments, even if these are different when it comes to structure. One preceded the next, and one added to the other. Authority and its relation to obedience can be better appreciated by drawing a correlation between the two approaches studied above. The results shed light on personality, and how adult behaviour can be a result of individual differences, as well as of contextual circumstances. Adorno et. al studied the master, and Milgram studied the slave. The general conclusion? Both sides are equally dangerous. 

References

Adorno, T.W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D.J. and Sanford, R.N. (1950) The Authoritarian Personality, New York, Harper.

Banyard, P. (2012)  ‘Just following orders?’, in Brace, N. and Byford, J. (eds) Investigating Psychology, Oxford, Oxford University Press/Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 61-95.

Byford, J. (2017) ‘The importance of replication’, in McAvoy, J. and Brace, N. (eds) Investigating Methods, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 47-82.

Holocaust Encyclopedia (2019) Documenting Number of Victims of the Holocaust and Nazi Persecution [Online]. Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20190309193501/https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/documenting-numbers-of-victims-of-the-holocaust-and-nazi-persecution (Accessed 2 April 2019)

McAvoy, J. (2012) ‘Exposing the Authoritarian Personality”, in Brace N. and Byford, J. (eds) Investigating Psychology, Oxford, Oxford University Press/Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 14-56 

Milgram, S. (n.d.). Modified “F” Scale, Opinion Questionnaire [Online]. Available at: https://search-alexanderstreet-com.libezproxy.open.ac.uk/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cbibliographic_details%7C2089868#page/1/mode/1/chapter/bibliographic_entity|bibliographic_details|2089868 (Accessed 2 April 2019)

Milgram, S. (1962). ‘Free Obedience vs. Forced Obedience’ in Stanley Milgram Personal Papers [Online]. Available at: https://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cbibliographic_details%7C2089846 (Accessed 2 April 2019)

Milgram, S. (1963). ‘Behavioral Study of Obedience’, in Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, pp. 371-372 [Online]. Available at: https://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cdocument%7C2082052 (Accessed 2 April, 2019)

Milgram, S. (1965). ‘Some Conditions of Obedience and Disobedience to Authority’, in Human Relations, vol. 18, no. 1, pp. 57-76 [Online]. Available at: https://search-alexanderstreet-com.libezproxy.open.ac.uk/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cbibliographic_details%7C2082063#page/1/mode/1/chapter/bibliographic_entity|bibliographic_details|2082063 (Accessed 2 April, 2019)

Obedience (1962) Directed by Stanley Milgram [Documentary]. New Haven, Yale University. Available at: https://search-alexanderstreet-com.libezproxy.open.ac.uk/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cvideo_work%7C2122979 (Accessed 2 April 2019)


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