[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n the 1960s and 1970s, classic social psychological studies were conducted that provided evidence that even normal, decent people can engage in acts of extreme cruelty when instructed to do so by others. However, in an essay published November 20 in the open access journal PLOS Biology, Professors Alex Haslam and Stephen Reicher revisit these studies’ conclusions and explain how awful acts involve not just obedience, but enthusiasm too — challenging the long-held belief that human beings are ‘programmed’ for conformity.
This belief can be traced back to two landmark empirical research programs conducted by Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Milgram’s ‘Obedience to Authority’ research is widely believed to show that people blindly conform to the instructions of an authority figure, and Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) is commonly understood to show that people will take on abusive roles uncritically.
However, Professor Haslam, from the University of Queensland, argues that tyranny does not result from blind conformity to rules and roles. Rather, it is a creative act of followership, resulting from identifying with authorities who represent vicious acts as virtuous.
“Decent people participate in horrific acts not because they become passive, mindless functionaries who do not know what they are doing, but rather becausethey