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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
Stalinist purges.

Now experiments carried out in Britain reveal that most people obey
authority unquestioningly and would also walk past an injured stranger
did not come from their own ethnic or social group.

The findings will shake the long-held British belief that this country
immune from the kinds of tyranny found in other parts of the world.

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 the
research will be revealed in a BBC
programme, Five Steps to
Tyranny, on the nature of evil to be
presented by Sheena McDonald
this week.

A separate experiment - again filmed with secret cameras - shows
majority of people on a train complying with a stranger's order
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:
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.'

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.

in reality they just don't do it. When we asked people afterwards
they didn't intervene, they said they didn't consider the pain
as serious
when they saw the person was wearing a Liverpool shirt.'

Colonel Bob Stewart, former commander of UN forces in Bosnia,
said his
experiences in the Balkans left him in no doubt that, given
the right
circumstances, similar human rights atrocities could be
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 here.'

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' and 'out'
groups based on irrational
prejudice. The tabloid attacks on asylum-
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
school two decades ago when teacher Jane Elliott split her
primary-school class into blue-eyed children, told they were superior,
brown-eyed children, told they were stupid and unattractive.
hours the blue-eyed 'in group' were bullying their classmates.

The researchers demonstrated that little had changed since 1961,
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.

Milgram's horror, two-thirds of the volunteers were ready to
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
had breakdowns.

'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
inquiries into prison riots.

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