Minimalist synopsis of the Milgram and Stanford Prison Experiments: subjects were willing to hurt others if they thought this was what authority figures wanted from them. Both studies serve as cautionary tales of how easily humans can be manipulated by authority figures into committing atrocious acts against their fellows. For me, the main lesson of these studies is a bit different – it is the danger of living in totalitarian environments. By “totalitarian”, I mean a social environment where there are no dissenting views expressed. Humans typically seek social validation of their views – without which, niggling reservations rarely rise to the level of conviction. And without the courage of conviction, it’s awfully hard to resist the powers that be. We’ll just follow orders, however uncomfortable we feel about them.
Sometimes all you need is to see someone else making waves to bring out your own doubts and give you the courage to take a stand: no, I won’t. For instance, in Milgram’s study, only 4 of 40 subjects agreed to continue in the experiment if they observed just two other persons refusing to comply.
What this tells me is that when everyone in one's reference group appears to agree on something, it’s hard not to go along. And it's hard to think otherwise, because we don't have sounding boards for working out our thoughts. We don't have models to give us the courage to say something. To cultivate critical thinking and the ability to disagree, we need to resist the tendency to surround ourselves with the like-minded and be willing to engage those who see things differently.