Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Obedience and Authority

Most ordinary people will obey the instruction of an authority figure, even when the instruction requires action that is morally repugnant. That was the conclusion of the famous Milgram experiment, conducted at Yale University in the 1960s.

In the experiment, the participants delivered what they believed were painful electric shocks to those who gave wrong answers on some questions. The perceived voltage went up in 15-volt increments for each wrong answer, and most of the participants delivered shocks all the way up to the maximum 450 volts.

People will inflict great pain on others and will even cause physical harm to others if an authority figure directs them to do so.

Stanley Milgram summarized his study this way: “Stark authority was pitted against the subjects' strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects' ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study…. Ordinary people… can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”

This psychological research was recently replicated, and though additional safeguards were in place, the experiment again showed the same troubling human tendency. Most people obey authority, even when the authority directs immoral action.

I think this enormous power of authority figures is a big part of the explanation for why so many people do nothing about clergy sex abuse. It’s why they find ways to rationalize, excuse, minimize and deny, instead of taking action.

Even when accusations and information are deeply troubling, ordinary people will choose to trust their pastor. He’s the authority figure.

Most people like to imagine that they will do the right thing when confronted with information about clergy sex abuse. But the reality is that most people trust the authority figure and do whatever he says. It’s human nature.

It’s the same sort of trust that causes kids to obey authority figures even when the obedience leads to sexual acts. The most powerful weapon that a clergy-predator has is the weapon of trust.

It’s why the weapon of trust must be taken away when there are credible allegations of abuse.

It’s why other authority figures must step up to the plate to assure that abuse allegations are responsibly addressed. Even if denominational leaders can’t remove men from ministry, they could at least serve as a competing voice of authority to say, “We believe the allegations are credible.”

See the 5-minute video, “The Science of Evil,” about the replication of the Milgram experiment. Let me know what you think.


Anonymous said...

I watched the video as per your request. It was disturbing to say the least. I am not sure just how reliable their conclusions were but to listen to those who administered the pain it was obvious that they had a pull inside of them going both ways. Was is sad is is that it appears they chose the worng way and then try to justify their choices by blaming someone or something else. Perps in the church are faced with the same two choices. It is sad to know how many choose the wrong way. When you listen to these people after they are caught they too blame someone or something else for their failures.
Unlike the experiment, the perps we are dealing with neither care for the victim nor are they worried about how much pain the cause. Since they are referred to as people with "spiritual authority" only makes this study all the more disturbing.
Have they publised any summary as to why the people willing inflicted pain on others?
I would be interested in reading their conclusions of the study if they can be found.

Christa Brown said...

John: Suggest you look at the two articles linked in the posting, and one of them has still more links to reports and subsequent stuff about the Milgram study/conclusions. An interesting note to the original Milgram study is that, even among the participants who stopped the shocks before reaching the maximum of 450 volts, NONE requested that the experiment itself be terminated and NONE of them went to check on the health of the victim (who was in another room but whose responses to the shocks could be heard through the wall) without first requesting permission from the authority figure -- i.e., the director of the study.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Christa,I read the studies. It is disturbing to think that we [humans] are like that. Dispite the findings I still think the inflictors of pain must assume responsibility for their actions.

oc said...

It seems this is a matter of the idea "I can live with the pain, as long as it's not happening to me".

Kinda like the SBC leadership in relation to clergy predation. God forbid if it ever happens to one of THEIR insulated daughters or sons, or one of their precious grandchildren. That's when the pain would be felt. I'm sure it would then be taken VERY SERIOUSLY... and something would be done about it in short order.

But I guess pain is "relative". It's really easy to feel sorry for the kids in Ethiopia who are starving. We hurt for a season, didn't we? Most of us somehow forgot about it, maybe pay lip service or even send a dollar once in a while. But mostly we work at ignoring it after that, because it's too painful to acknowlege we have done next to nothing while they are in pain and they starve and die still, yet we are fat.

But it sure is different if one of our own is starving. Well...at least it should make one more compassionate...

But the "leadership" has convinced themselves that the sin and pain of clergy sexual predation has not infected their own house, it's just a problem for someone else's house, since it hasn't happened personally to one of theirs.

So I guess pain is "relative", so to speak, isn't it? It's easy to ignore the problem, because clergy predation hasn't touched one of theirs. Which really says something else profound. Evidently those of us who are concerned about this
problem are really none of "theirs"...


Anonymous said...


I'm trying to understanding the issue. Your blog is about Baptist clergy predators. Specifically what takes place in church environments.

I believe your story about Gilmore. He has been protected by the denomination. So don't take this wrong if I ask, would there be a difference if the relationship had been consensual?

gmommy said...

On Wade Burleson's blog,the Ted Haggerty scandal is the topic. One commenter brought up the abuse of a child and the Christian's responsibility to forgive.

It's amazing to see the first response be about forgiving the abuser ...NOT to come to the aid and restoration of the victims???

It just makes no sense to me.

Anonymous said...


Yes, it makes a lot of sence if you know the mindset of too many "religious" leaders today. At all costs, even justice and fairness, we just must look like we are "SPIRITUAL" so as to bring more "trusting" souls into the flock.

Christa Brown said...

Talking about forgiveness is so much easier, and as John points out, gets them "brownie points" for being "spiritual." But to actually sit with the pain of those who have been molested, raped and sodomized as kids by ministers whom they trusted completely is something that most of these men lack the fortitude for.

It's also a lot easier for Baptist leaders to see the pain (or what is often pretend pain) of the clergy sex abuser and his family. He looks like them, and talks like them, and his career has been like theirs, and they can identify with him. And because the perpetrator is not a fraction so wounded as his victim, he's capable of talking about it (if he's caught) and sounding as though he's remorseful. But even if it's true that he's genuinely remorseful, there's a big difference between guilt and shame. He may feel guilty about what he did, but the victim feels profound shame about who they ARE. That's often the effect of the injury -- that it leaves the victim's self-identity so profoundly enmeshed with the belief that they are worthless or worse that the victim does not usually speak of it. So, people wind up seeing the pain (or pretend pain) of the perpetrator, but they don't see the pain of the victim... precisely because THAT pain is so great that it renders them mute. And most people don't want to make the effort to see THAT pain because it makes THEM too uneasy and challenges their own sense of safety in the world. As you have said before, gmommy, most church people simply prefer to stay in their safe little "bubble-world" rather than to actually open their eyes to the pain of those who have been wounded by Baptist clergy.

It's easy to talk about forgiveness. Almost rote. We all learned about forgiveness in Sunday School... probably starting back when we were about 4. But it's a lot harder for people to wrap their heads around the reality of ministers who molest and rape the young. That's something nobody talked about in Sunday School. It's a whole 'nother world. And most people choose the safety of sticking with the rote talk of forgiveness rather than seeing the reality of that world outside their bubble.

oc said...

It's always easier to "forgive" when it doesn't touch you.

gmommy said...

To Christa comment....
a non Baptist hardy AMEN!