Creffield, Obedience to Authority and Stanley Milgram
“When Franz Edmund Creffield placed his hands on his followers heads they were absolutely in his power and did anything he told them,” Burgess Starr, an in-law of Creffield’s, said. “Had he told them to jump in the river they would not have hesitated a moment, but plunged in.” And when he ordered them to, they did more than jump in a river. When he ordered them to burn cats and dogs and to do worse, they burned cats and dogs and did worse.
“They must have been social deviants,” a member of the audience once said when I was doing a reading from Holy Rollers. “Who else but Nazis and social deviants would so blindly follow heinous orders?” Is this true? Would only a social deviant obey an immoral order?
It is true that many Nazis during their trials for war crimes said, “I was only following orders.” If every social deviant, sadist, and all round badnick in Germany joined the Nazi party in the 1930s and “just followed orders,” would that account for all the crimes against humanity that were committed during World War II? Unlikely. Millions of people were murdered. Far too many for there not to have been ordinary citizens--people who before the war were kind, descent, caring people, people like you and me--involved in committing some of the atrocities.
And how do you get ordinary citizens to perform such deeds? Apparently, if you’re an authority figure, all you have to do is order them to do so, and they will do it. Such were the findings of Dr. Stanley Milgram.
Milgram did an experiment where he had an authority figure--someone in a white coat--tell two volunteers that they were participating in a psychological study on the effect punishment had on learning. The person in white told the volunteers that in the experiment one of them would be the "teacher" and one of them would be the "learner." Which role they assumed was to be determined by lot.
Those whose lots it was to be the teachers must have initially felt some relief as the other volunteers, the learners, were strapped into chairs and had electrodes hooked to their bodies while they, the teachers, were seated in front of a generator with switches that went from 15 volts to 450 volts. Two switches were simply labeled "XXX". The person in white explained that the volunteer who was the teacher was to read a list of two word pairs and ask the volunteer who was the learner to read them back. If the learner answered correctly, the teacher was to move on to the next word. However, if the learner answered incorrectly, the teacher was supposed to zap the learner with 15 volts. Err again, and the teacher was to up the voltage and zap the inept learner with 30 volts. Err again. 45 volts, and so on until . . . ? Well, that was the question. How far would the teachers crank up the voltage before saying: “No, I won’t continue?” Milgram really wasn’t studying learning, but how far ordinary people go when following the orders of a person in authority.
Many of the teachers obviously felt discomfort zapping helpless moaning, screaming, and twitching victims, but zap away, they did. Even when one of the learners complained of having heart problems and pleaded not to be shocked, the teachers zapped them. They weren’t responsible. Those in authority were. They were just following orders. The ends justify the means. None of the teachers stopped zapping erring learners before reaching 300 volts. None! Two-thirds of the teachers zapped to the max, 450 volts.
Fortunately, Milgram’s “learners” weren’t really volunteers and they weren’t hooked up to electrodes. They were actors and the experiment was rigged to that they always drew the lots to be the zapped learners.
And Milgram’s volunteer teachers? Were they Nazis? No. They were Americans who, in Milgram’s words, were “ordinary people drawn from the working, managerial, and professional classes.” Milgram, you see, had conducted his experiments not in Nazi Germany, but at Yale in 1961 and 1962.
"The results, as seen and felt in the laboratory, are,” Milgram wrote, “disturbing. They raise the possibility that human nature, or--more specifically--the kind of character produced in American society, cannot be counted on to insulate the citizens from brutality and inhumane treatment at the direction of malevolent authority."
Alas, it wasn’t just American society that produced these disturbing results. When others around the world replicated Milgram’s experiments--which today would be considered unethical--they had similar statistical results.
So who but a social deviant would obey an order to burn cats and dogs and to do worse? Maybe as many as 65% of humanity would. Maybe I would. Maybe you would. Especially if we were in Creffield’s followers place. Long before he asked his followers to violate the commandments, Creffield had them convinced that he was God’s Elect, the Second Savior, their Lord. That gave him an appearance of authority that a white coat can’t begin to equal.
To read more on Stanley Milgram’s study read his book, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View, published by Harper Collins in 1974.
For more information on Stanley Milgram go to www.stanleymilgram, a site maintained by Thomas Blass, PhD., a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland and author of, The Man Who Shocked the World, an autobiography of Milgram.