Stanley Milgram carried out one of the most famous psychology studies in 1963. He focused on seeing how far people would go in obeying an instruction if it involved harming another person.
40 Volunteers were introduced to an instructor in a lab coat, played by an actor, and another actor who was strapped into an electric chair.
The volunteers were told they were testing the person in the chair by having him to recall words from a list. Each time the person in the chair made a mistake the volunteer was instructed to administer an electric shock, increasing the level of shock each time a mistake was made from a slight shock to a life threatening shock.
Two-thirds of volunteers administered increasing levels of electricity to a deadly 450 volts and every one continued to at least 300 volts
Milgram concluded that ordinary people are likely to follow orders given by an authority figure, even to the extent of killing an innocent human being.
Read more about moral courage
The experiment lives on in common culture as a damnation of our ability to inflict pain and acquiesce to authority.
The rest of the story:
Few are aware that the experiment had a variation where the volunteers witnessed another participants (also actors) refused to obey.
In the presence of others who disobeyed the authority figure the levels of obedience to inflict harm of the volunteers fell to 10%.
We all like to think we are strong enough to stop bad things happening when we see it.
But are we?
When was the last time you saw something wrong happening and didn’t say anything; didn’t refuse; didn’t set an example for others to find the courage to say no.
We all have the capacity to be complicit, but leaders have the responsibility to set an example.
Be a leader, even when it is hard.