Mayvin_Hamlet New Scientist Stanley Milgram Follow Orders Obedience

The Play Is the Thing

I’ll have grounds
More relative than this—the play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.
Hamlet Act 2, Scene 2, 603–605

Was Hamlet right? Is it in play, the story, or to use a fashionable word these days, the ‘narrative’ that we find our most vital answers? I consider this in relation to an iconic experiment conducted in the 1960s, the findings of which may be starting to unravel. This may be useful to us in the world of OD and leadership, because it might suggest that we are missing an important part of the change jigsaw.

In the latter quarter of the 20th Century, the world of social psychology was struggling to come to terms with the unprecedented brutality of the Second World War. At the heart of this project was the fundamental question about why so-called ‘ordinary people’ did unspeakable things, what political thinker Hannah Arendt called the ‘banality of evil’. Along comes Stanley Milgram, a charismatic Yale Psychology Professor, who devises what becomes a legendary set of experiments, wherein ‘scientists in white coats’ manipulate ordinary men and women to contribute towards what they fully understand to be the torture of others. The idea of ‘blind obedience’ is born – supported by the evidence of the so-called Nuremberg defence, (after the post-war trials): ‘I was only following orders’.

Now this is all well known – in fact that is my point here – it is perhaps a bit too well known. It has become an axiom of psychology. Troublingly, it seems to let most of us off the hook – a charismatic enough leader, in a situation that has enough power distance in it, and most of us would unthinkingly join in to perpetrate a holocaust. Challenge this idea about yourself and you are flying in the face of experimental evidence.

But a recent New Scientist article suggests, like Hamlet, that this narrative may have had a power of claim considerably beyond what it can justifiably support. And that critically, it may not enable us to quite cop out as easily as we might have believed. (‘Just Obeying Orders?’ New Scientist 13/9/14 pp.28-31). It quotes the recent work of two psychologists, Alexander Haslam (University of Queensland, Australia), and Stephen Reicher (St Andrews). They have been reviewing Milgram’s work, and replicated its findings to a good extent (albeit with a considerably more ethical method), but have questioned the narrative that Milgram used to explain the results. In particular, they point to a documentary that Milgram famously made, called ‘Obedience’  (1965), and how this has been ‘shown on television many times and seen by virtually every psychology student’ (p31). Thus Milgram’s orthodoxy is reinforced by successive generations, and yet what these contemporary researchers stressed is that Milgram’s experimental set up, and the story the film portrays, may have underplayed the levels of willing compliance.

They suggest that as well as legitimately pointing towards the possibility of our blind obedience, what the original research failed to show was the more subtle dynamic of challenge by, and willing consent of, the experimental subjects, and in particular what they called ‘engaged followership’ – that is: when people decide a leader is worth following, they more than enthusiastically allow themselves to be coerced into doing bad things. So it isn’t always just blind obedience – it is active, engaged, willingness to follow, supported by an innate aggression and indeed nastiness in us that it is all to easy to deny. Hence what might be happening is more subtle, more relational, and indeed more concerning for those of us who thought we could be let off the hook by the ‘blind obedience’ defence. This passes us back some of the responsibility, and this changes the story of leadership and followership in a subtle yet significant way.

Such a finding may have big consequences for our times. It may suggest that we need to look much more closely at how and why we choose to follow, not only in organisational settings, but also on the global stage, where it seems once again, so-called ordinary people are prepared to publicly commit horrific acts (and indeed might the publicity be part of the thing, as Shakespeare suggested…?). The responsibility of followership (and not just the glamour of leadership) should be subjected to a much greater scrutiny.

Importantly, this all suggests that the story, the play, is the thing. As Hamlet knew only too well, control of the narrative is as powerful in science as everywhere else.



Martin Saville: For me this gets us into the territory of the Unconscious – the idea that we all have aggressive and nasty impulses that are out of our awareness. In the scenarios described, it’s as if a particular type of leader somehow is able to speak directly to that innate (unconscious) nastiness, bypassing the more civilised and developed aspects of our psychology. Somehow this enables us to act out those impulses while letting us off the hook psychologically for so doing. When challenged afterwards as to why we did it, we post-rationalise it with ‘I was only following orders’, conveniently overlooking the fact that at some level we are complicit. The brutality of the Holocaust, or indeed of ISIS, shows this at its most extreme, but my sense is that the same dynamic is at play in little ways all the time in everyday life. What does this mean for me as a practitioner? Tony asks. Good question. I wonder if part of it is about helping people find a way to own and acknowledge the nastier aspects of who they are. My own experience is the more in touch I am with my dark side, the more I can have compassion for it rather than rejecting it, the less I feel the impulse to act it out and, paradoxically, the more I like myself.

Tony Fraser: Interesting and relevant. I am left with the question as an ethical OD practitioner what do I need to do about it? What to look for and how to respond? Any thoughts? T