For educational purposes.
Study Shows That Crude Loyalty to
Our Social Group and Blind Obedience
Make Tyranny Possible Anywhere
Revealed: why evil lurks in us all
Martin Bright, home affairs correspondent
Sunday December 17, 2000
The Observer (London)
Psychologists have struggled for decades to explain why ordinary
people participate in atrocities such as the Nazi Holocaust or the
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
Research carried out at Lancaster University on football supporters
found that they failed consistently to come to the aid of an injured
supporter from a rival team. Secret cameras filmed individual
Manchester United fans as they ignored a Liverpool fan played
by an actor while he writhed in pain on the floor.
When the actor wore a Manchester United shirt, the supporters
helped him in 80 per cent of cases. When he switched to a Liverpool
shirt, all but a handful walked straight past. The results of
research will be revealed in a BBC programme, Five Steps to
Tyranny, on the nature of evil to be presented by Sheena McDonald
A separate experiment - again filmed with secret cameras - shows
the majority of people on a train complying with a stranger's
to give up their seat. When the stranger is accompanied by a man
in a uniform, not a single person chooses to disobey.
McDonald said she was shocked by what the experiments showed:
'The majority of people have a psychological tendency to obey
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.'
Dr Mark Levine, the psychologist who developed the football fan
experiment, said: 'These are ordinary people. If you ask people
whether they would help a stranger in distress, they say they would.
But in reality they just don't do it. When we asked people afterwards
why they didn't intervene, they said they didn't consider the
as serious when they saw the person was wearing a Liverpool
Colonel Bob Stewart, former commander of UN forces in Bosnia,
said his experiences in the Balkans left him in no doubt that,
the right circumstances, similar human rights atrocities could
committed in Britain. 'What makes a man go for a drink with his
neighbour one moment and shoot him the next? We still don't
understand what causes normally good people to go over the
edge. Until we do, there is the possibility that it will happen
The controversial programme argues that everyday prejudice can
quickly develop into full-blown oppression and even genocide.
The first step to tyranny, it suggests, is the creation of 'in'
groups based on irrational prejudice. The tabloid attacks on
seekers are given as evidence that we are not immune to such blind
The new research draws on experiments such as the one in an
Iowa school two decades ago when teacher Jane Elliott split
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
The researchers demonstrated that little had changed since 1961,
when Stanley Milgram, a young psychologist at Yale, discovered
how easily ordinary citizens could become perpetrators of evil.
Volunteers were taking part in an experiment to test people's
ability to learn. They were then told to administer electric shocks
to a stranger behind a screen when they failed to perform a simple
task of memory, and gradually increase the severity if they continued
to make mistakes.
To Milgram's horror, two-thirds of the volunteers were ready
administer potentially lethal doses of electricity when encouraged
to do so by a researcher in a white coat.
Professor Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University tells the programme
that more crimes are committed in the name of obedience than
disobedience: 'It is those who follow any authority blindly who
are the real danger.' Zimbardo carried out a famous experiment
in 1971 at Stanford University when volunteer students were
split into guards and inmates in a makeshift underground jail.
The experiment had to be abandoned after the guards began
violently assaulting the inmates and several of the prisoners
'It demonstrated the ease and speed with which things can get
out of control. Within days the guards were behaving sadistically
and the prisoners were acting pathologically.' But Zimbardo said
there were some positive aspects: the research was used in
Congressional inquiries into prison riots.
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