65% of you would kill someone if ordered to

65% of you would kill someone if ordered to: When I think of evilness in the world, immediately my mind is drawn to murders, rapes, genocides, etc…  It is easy to picture the incarnation of evil as Hitler or a serial killer.  But over the past few months, the #MeToo movement has been showing us that evil is not limited to violent sociopaths.  Men in positions of power have taken advantage of women and other men.

Now 99% of you would never even think about doing the horrible and vile things like Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, etc…, and you would be right to think that.  But there are people that have helped enable these behaviors.  These are the people that helped arrange the meetings for Weinstein, looked the other way for Moore, or covered up the facts for countless others.  While you may not be a sexual predator or a murderer, part of our human nature causes us to enable these behaviors.  Given the right situation we will not conduct the evil actions, but we will support them.

While there are countless philosophical tomes about the nature of good and evil in man, for me the conversation about enabling evil starts in 1961.  In a Yale University basement, Dr. Stanley Milgram wanted to understand if Nazi war criminals were true accomplices in the holocaust or if they were just following orders.  So, he designed an experiment to test how far someone would be willing to go if someone was ordering them.

The experiment started with a volunteer who was told the experiment was about memory and learning.  The volunteer would be the ‘teacher’ and another participant (an actor and a confederate of the experiment) would be the ‘learner’.  The two people were separated into different rooms but they could hear each other through an intercom.  The volunteer teacher would ask the learner to memorize a series of numbers, and the consequences of a wrong answer were electric shocks in increasing voltages.  The shocks went from harmless up to eventual “XXX fatal” levels.

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Even though the actor was not actually being shocked, he would shout and scream until he was begging for the experiment to stop.  Obviously, this caused a lot of stress on the volunteers.  Mind you, these volunteers were not bad people.  They were just the average people / students of Connecticut.  They felt bad administering the shocks, and would ask the experimenter to stop.

But whenever the volunteer would pause or show concern for the learner, the experimenter ordered the volunteer to continue (i.e. “the experiment requires that you continue”, “It is absolutely essential that you continue”, and “You have no other choice, you must go on”).  If the volunteer wished to stop after being prodded 4 times to continue, the experiment was halted.  But the sad fact is that few people got to that point.  65% of people followed the experimenter’s orders and delivered fatal shocks to another person, even though the ‘actor’ had seemingly passed out .

65% of you would kill someone if ordered to

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Think about that for a second, 2 out of 3 people were willing to follow orders which would have killed someone.  That is the power of our caveman brains.  We are willing to follow the orders of our leader to the point where we would do an evil act.  We might not feel good about doing it, but we would do it anyways.  That is the power of leadership.

So what can we do with this knowledge?  Well firstly, we can be thankful that most business leaders, politicians, or experts would never order us to kill someone.  But they might order us to do something unethical.

Now most companies do provide some sort of ethical code of conduct, a legally mandated ethics training, and some sort of ethics hotline.  These are all great things, but honestly, they are missing the point.  Those kinds of preventative measures do not address the mindset of the person who is faced with an unethical decision.

Most of us imagine that we will always make the right ethical decision.  We think if our boss pressures us, we will valiantly stand up and say “NO”.  But the science doesn’t back up our imaginations.  Most of us will fold under the pressure, and then start logistical gymnastics to try and reason why it was ok for us to do it.  Our caveman brains are biased towards following the leader, and if people don’t understand that fact then there is a bigger risk they enable some of bad behaviors.

That is why we recommend that ethics training start by helping people understand that all of us are biased and irrational in our thinking.  They need to understand that most people won’t call the ethics hotline until it is way too late.  The need to believe that the pressure they feel from a leader might overwhelm their sense of right or wrong.  If 65% of people are willing to follow orders to kill someone, how many people would follow orders to change an invoice date, or pass over a woman for promotion because she is pregnant, or look the other way as a facilitation payment occurs?

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This isn’t to let people off the hook for the enabling behavior.   The goal is to  help them realize that they can easily fall victim to supporting unethical behaviors.  When people introduce themselves at Alcoholics Anonymous, they say Hi, my name is Bob, and I’m Alcoholic.”  Similarly, we all need to recognize our own limitations when it comes to standing up to power.  Admitting it to ourselves is the first step to making the right decision in a bad situation.

“Hi!  Our names are Cary and Lars, and we have caveman brains.  In some situations, we will act irrationally, and if we aren’t careful, this irrationality can be exploited for awful or unethical purposes.”   Now your turn…

65% of you would kill someone if ordered to

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