I Was Just Following Orders…

Our guest blogger is Kristin Lane, a Professor of Psychology at Bard College. She looks at the capricious nature of our intentions. Will we blindly follow orders, no matter the consequence?

2011 marks the 50th anniversary of two crucial turning points in the understanding of human behavior. Adolf Eichmann’s trial for crimes committed during the Holocaust – and Hannah Arendt’s account of it in The New Yorker that later formed the basis of Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil – gave rise to a new explanation for why people do terrible things. Rather than the intuitive (and comforting) notion that only awful people do awful things, the Eichmann trial offered the possibility that ordinary people, placed in or facing the right conditions, may do extraordinarily terrible things. 

Inspired by his reading about the Eichmann trial, social psychologist Stanley Milgram asked, “Could it be that Eichmann and his accomplices  had mutual intent, in at least with regard to the goals of the Holocaust?” Could he demonstrate in the lab, he wondered, that normal people, when asked to obey an authority figure, would act in ways that would horrify most of us (and, indeed, themselves)?  This pattern is exactly what he found – residents of New Haven, Connecticut who believed that they were serving as a teacher in an experiment on word learning, inflicted painful – or even lethal – shocks to learners in the presence of an authority figure. Together, these events helped shift explanations for atrocities from something inherent in the individual (who may be amoral, psychologically ill, or sadistic) to the broader situation, in which someone without animus or intent could behave in deplorable ways.

With half a century elapsed since the Eichmann trial, historian Deborah Lipstadt revisits it in The Eichmann Trial. Lipstadt offers a vividly written account, especially when she describes the process of locating and capturing Eichmann.  The details – a teenage romance that provided one of the first clues to his identity, an undercover operation in which Eichmann was blinded by headlights of an oncoming car, and a drugged Eichmann, wearing an El Al uniform and brought back to Israel under the guise of a drunk airline crew member – are the ingredients of a good spy novel, and Lipstadt’s writing does them justice. Her scope is expansive, and she engages with several large themes as she recounts the chronology of the trial. By making the voices of Jewish survivors and the experiences of Jewish survivors and victims so central to Eichmann’s crimes, she argues, the trial recentered Holocaust narratives around victims’ experiences rather than perpetrators’ acts. The trial is a painted as a turning point for Zionism, and Lipstadt attends to the ways in which Israel’s development informed the trial, and the reciprocal ways in which the trial itself transformed Israel. As she sets the stage for the trial by describing the anticipation leading up to it, she notes that among the central questions on trial observers’ minds was, “Would Eichmann’s defense strategy of obedience to orders hold sway?” Revisiting the plausibility of obedience as an explanation and/or excuse takes a central role in Lipstadt’s analysis.  So, too, does the question of whether Eichmann’s actions were necessarily rooted in animus toward Jewish people.

One thematic issue that is not integrated into Lipstadt’s scholarship but rather merits its own chapter is Lipstadt’s treatment of Arendt’s analysis of the Eichmann trial, which comprises the final chapter before the conclusion. To be sure, Arendt is far from absent from the book’s early pages (there she is, after all, pictured on the book’s cover).

Lipstadt challenges Arendt’s analysis of the Eichmann trial in many areas. As a social psychologist interested in the ways in which behavior can operate without intention and as a function of our social situations, the issue that most interests me is Lipstadt’s discussion of the notion the Eichmann was “just following orders.”

Lipstadt suggests that Arendt “saw [in Eichmann] an automaton who was just passing on information and who failed to understand that what he had done was wrong.” The terror of Eichmann’s crimes was not that he was so atypical, but rather that he was exactly so typical. Arendt characterizes the import of Eichmann’s final words: “The lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us – the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought defying banality of evil.”  If Eichmann was not afflicted by psychopathology, was not driven by “fanatical anti-Semitism,” was not burdened with “insane hatred,” was not, in other words, characterized by some trait that sets him apart from “normal” folks, then there is the “fearsome” possibility that anyone around us, or even, most chillingly, ourselves, could be susceptible to similar influences. In her epilogue, Arendt expands on the notion of the banality of evil: “Eichmann was not Iago and not MacBeth …Except for an extraordinary diligence in personal advancement, he had no motives at all…. He merely, to put it colloquially, never realized what he was doing….”

For Lipstadt, Eichmann’s defenses that he was “just a ‘little cog’” and “exclusively a carrier out of orders” were  feeble variations on a theme: “I was just passing along requests.”  She remains unconvinced. “The more he repeated it, the less persuasive it sounded, and the less he looked like a low-level bureaucrat.”  Over the course of the trial “[a] portrait emerged of a man who was proactive, energetic, and a creative master of deception…someone who was far more than just a transportation specialist.” While she recognizes that “the transformation of seemingly normal people into killers … rightfully intrigued [Arendt],” she does not accept the premise that Eichmann was a normal person. She offers evidence throughout the book – from the trial and in documents released more recently (most notably Eichmann’s memoir, released in the late 1990s) that Eichmann was no mere passive actor, but an intentional agent, motivated not just by ordinary desires for professional advancement, but by deep-seated anti-Semitism.

My goal in the rest of this piece is not to adjudicate (again) the specifics of Eichmann’s trial. Rather, it is to explore what the social psychological perspective on mind and behavior can add to the discussion of the question: Is it possible that an ordinary person, with no conscious intention, malice, or group-based animus, could behave in ways similar to Eichmann? Two classic social psychological studies hint at the answer. In the first, the Milgram studies discussed above, ordinary people administered dangerously high – even lethal – shock levels to an ostensible partner. Before the experiments began, Milgram asked fellow psychologists to predict what percent of people would administer the highest possible voltage. Polled psychologists predicted that only one in one thousand people – the most deranged, sadistic, and evil among us – would use the maximum voltage of 450 volts. In actuality, over 60% of participants obeyed the experimenter despite the obvious distress of their partner and administered the maximum voltage. Sadism is a poor explanation for these findings – participants protested and exhibited distress, but in the end, the power of the situation overwhelmed their desire to stop administering shocks. Indeed, left to their own devices without the authority figure instructing them to continue, a miniscule proportion of people administered the maximum shock.

A decade after the Milgram experiments, Phil Zimbardo and his colleagues asked a similar question: What happens when you put good people in an evil place? They created a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford University Psychology Department, and randomly  physically and psychologically healthy young men to be either “guards” or “prisoners.”

Although the guards were given no explicit instructions, they quickly adapted to their new roles to an eerie extent, implementing procedures that degraded and punished the prisoners, such as requiring push-ups and waking them up in the middle of the night. Following attempts by the prisoners to “rebel,” the guards forced some prisoners to strip naked, placed others in solitary confinement, and invoked ever-stricter rules. The prison became so realistic – and damaging to the prisoners who were becoming distressed and depressed – that the planned two-week experiment was halted on its sixth day.

Why are people so susceptible to the power of the situation? Perhaps, as Arendt suggested, because of sheer thoughtlessness.  Again, a classic social psychological study demonstrates this tendency. Ellen Langer and her colleagues had experimenters approach people who were working at a copy machine and ask to jump ahead.  When faced with the simple request Excuse me. I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine?, approximately 60% allowed the person to use the machine. When faced with a request asked in conjunction with a reason for it – Excuse me. I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush? – the percent of people who let the experimenter go ahead increased to 94%. The surprising finding is that a request with a statement that sounded like, but was not actually, a reason had almost the same effect. When people asked Excuse me. I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies? (a completely tautological statement), 93% of them were permitted to move ahead. Participants seemed to rely on a mental script (“If someone tacks a statement onto their request it is probably a valid explanation”) and fail to evaluate the merits of the statement itself. In other words, behavior became automatic and people failed to exert the kind of controlled conscious thinking that Arendt encouraged.

Indeed, a large body of research shows that rather than being deliberative, intentional, conscious, our behavior is often– even more often than not – a function of mental processes that operate outside of conscious awareness. Many mental operations have both automatic (less conscious) and controlled (more conscious) components. Often, we are all the automatons that Arendt suggested Eichmann was, getting by on the efficiency of our automatic systems. When people were exposed to the stereotype of the elderly, for example, they walked more slowly down the hallway. Similarly, people were more likely to interrupt an experimenter after being presented with the concept of “rudeness.” In both cases, people failed to recognize exposure to the original concept, and denied that it could have possibly influenced their behavior.

It is a large leap, to be sure, to go from walking down a hallway to orchestrating the Holocaust.

The commonality among these experiments, though, is their demonstration not only of the power of the situation but also the ways in which people can fail to recognize the ways in which environments shape responses. People who do terrible things are not necessarily dispositionally terrible – in this sense, the psychological evidence comes down on Arendt’s side rather than Lipstadt’s.

But how then, do we allocate responsibility if individual will can be subordinated to larger situational forces? Arendt worried about a march toward determinism:

We have become very much accustomed by modern psychology and sociology, not to speak of modern bureaucracy, to explaining away the responsibility of the doer for his deed in terms of this or that kind of determinism. Whether such seemingly deeper explanations of human actions are right or wrong is debatable. But what is not debatable is that no judicial procedure would be possible on the basis of them, and that the administration of justice, measured by such theories, is an extremely unmodern, not to say outmoded, institution.

Situational explanations for human actions need not be excuses – not everyone obeyed orders during the Holocaust, nearly 40% of Milgram’s subjects did not go to the highest voltage, and not everyone exposed to the words “bingo, grey, and Florida” walked more slowly down the hall. The ability of some individuals to overcome (or simply ignore) the situational forces is one of social psychology’s very real, phenomena. Indeed, although people can have attitudes and stereotypes that exist outside of conscious awareness that influence behavior, the influence of those biases on behavior can be attenuated by individual and situational differences in motivation to be non-biased, working memory capacity, and executive control over cognitive functions.

In other words, although she said it in less psychological terms, Arendt accurately foresaw that when we do the hard work of bringing our controlled, conscious thoughts to bear on our behavior and situations, our automatic systems need not be our destiny. Here, Arendt (as summarized by Lipstadt) and the contemporary research – and, I believe, Lipstadt herself – are in concordance: “because ‘all the cogs in the machinery, no matter how insignificant,’ were necessary for it to operate.  Eichmann’s assertion that his only alternative to following orders was to commit suicide was, according to her, a ‘lie’ unsupported by the evidence.”

-Kristin Lane