Blind Obedience Thought To Be Key In Holocaust And Other Atrocities
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Blind Obedience Thought To Be Key In Holocaust And Other Atrocities

Social psychologists studying the holocaust believe blind obedience is amongst it's causes. Other atrocities linked to blind obedience include the Jonestown Massacre and the Hale-Bopp suicides.

Obedience to authority is the basis for modern society. Without obedience to laws, parents and other authority figures, modern society would be unable to function. Many people think that blind obedience, obeying an authority figure even when it does not make sense, is a rarity.

Social psychology studies show that this is not the case.

Over the past few decades, the Holocaust has been attributed to many things; evil, politics, desperation. However, it wasn’t until social psychologists researched the topic that the Holocaust was attributed to blind obedience. It seems that blind obedience is the rule, not the exception. Philosopher Hannah Arendt was even quoted as saying, “the most horrifying thing about the Nazis was not that they were so deviant but that they were terrifyingly normal”.

Nazi atrocities are not the only example of blind obedience gone wrong. Psychiatrist Charles Hofling conducted a study in 1966 proving that high rates of medication error in hospitals can be directly attributed to blind obedience to authority. In this field experiment, conducted in a hospital setting, a doctor unknown to each nurse contacted her requesting a 20mg dose of a medication be delivered to a patient. Even though the label on the medication clearly stated that the maximum dose to be administered was 10mg, the nurses started to give the patient the 20mg dose anyway. They had to be stopped by a researcher before they administered the potentially-lethal dose of the drug.

Other historical events also underscore the tendency toward blind obedience in modern society. A more recent example of blind obedience is the Jonestown massacre that happened in 1978. In this case, an American cult, lead by Jim Jones committed mass suicide by drinking cyanide-laced drinks. 909 people died in this extreme example of blind obedience.

Even more recently, were the Hale-Bopp suicides that happened in 1997. Heaven’s Gate cult leader Marshall Applewhite convinced 38 followers to commit suicide by ingesting Phenobarbital mixed with applesauce or pudding, and drinking vodka thereafter. Afterwards, plastic bags were placed on the cult members heads to ensure death.

Blind obedience is not something that we can just send all of society to therapy to fix. It is a product of how we are socialized in most cultures. We are taught from a young age to obey authority figures. However, we are not told what to do when they authority figures tell us to do things against our social and moral values.


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Comments (5)

It could easily be argued that blind obedience is hard-wired as a survival mechanism.

James, you are correct. If that is the case, I wonder if it's usefulness to modern society is eclipsed by the amount of trouble it can cause.

Well, psychology works under the assumption that most/all behavior is adaptive. We have to assume then that it may serve a purpose beyond what is apparent. I mean, walking upright seemed like a really reckless thing to do. It explosed the genitalia and belly, caused extreme stress to the back, caused a number of other physical conditions that we all suffer. But, it also made us faster, made baby birth easier, and probably caused us to be vocal. I don't know if anyone is in a position to actually guage "usefulness."

I understand that psychology makes that assumption, but biology often seems to show that there are some leftover, vestigal behaviors. One of these would be eating until we pop even though food is plentiful in our culture. It could be that this is a behavior that could phase out over the next few millenia.

Indeed it could. But that could indicate that it's adaptive until then?