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March 14, 2007

Obedience to authority studies and a provocative parallel

Over at The Situationist, Philip Zimbardo is doing a series of posts discussing Stanley Milgram's famous obedience to authority experiments and his famous Stanford prison experiment.  In my view, anyone working in the criminal justice arena (or really in any legal field) should know about Milgram's experiments and his remarkable findings; these new Zimbardo posts at The Situationist provide a great up-to-date entry into these important (and always timely) human dynamics.

Among many other highlights, this Zimbardo post reviews "ten lessons from the Milgram studies" concerning "what strategies can seduce ordinary citizens to engage in apparently harmful behavior."  I cannot help but notice that one could find indirect expression of many such "strategies" in the functional operation of severe sentencing rules that demand imposition of extraordinary prison terms seemingly without concern for substantive, case-specific notions of justice.  Consider these entries from the Zimbardo list of Milgram's obedience to authority lessons:

March 14, 2007 at 06:31 PM | Permalink


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Dear Doug,

As a judge, I am particularly sensitive to your point that it is useful to remember and compare the results of the Milgram experiment with the “functional operation of severe sentencing rules . . . .” If only to keep a perspective, it is also useful to reread Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and then recall Ralph’s lament that “the rules are the only thing we've got” and the deadly consequences of Jack’s response, “Bollocks to the rules!”

Take care.

Richard Kopf
United States District Judge

Posted by: Richard Kopf | Mar 14, 2007 9:09:23 PM

The real provocative parallel is between the ten lessons of Milgram's studies and the piecemeal erosion of our civil rights. "Its ok the guy is guilty we can't suppress evidence of guilt." -- bye bye Fourth Amednment. "Papers please" "what books are you reading" "what websites did you visit" "911" Bit by bit governmental, as well as judicial decisionmaking results in a harmful contraction and even elimination of our rights all in the name of law and order/homeland security. Practising attorney.

Posted by: KAY | Mar 14, 2007 10:42:20 PM

"Our nation's current social developments harbor insidious evolutionary forces which propel us toward a collective, Orwellian society. One of the features of that society is the utter destruction of privacy, the individual's complete exposure to the all-seeing, all-powerful police state. Government agencies, civilian and military, federal, state and local, have acquired miles and acres of files, enclosing revelations of the personal affairs and conditions of millions of private individuals. Credit agencies and other business enterprises assemble similar collections. Information peddlers burrow into the crannies of these collections. Microfilm and electronic tape facilitate the storage of private facts on an enormous scale. Computers permit automated retrieval, assemblage and dissemination. These vast repositories of personal information may easily be assembled into millions of dossiers characteristic of a police state. Our age is one of shriveled privacy. Leaky statutes imperfectly guard a small portion of these monumental revelations." - Judge Friedman, May 18, 1971. [17 Cal. App. 3d 621]

What would he think now?

Posted by: George | Mar 15, 2007 12:44:16 AM

Judge Kopf: Thanks for taking my point in good spirit and also for providing a useful literary counter-point. I hope you and others appreciate that I am not against sentencing rules, I just think it is important to recognize the psychological tendency of humans to follow rules/authority just because they exist without serious substantive reflection on whether the rules may be less than humane.

I saw an amazing movie on the Miligram experiments as a 10th grader and went on to read his book and other literature in this field while still in high school. The Zimbardo posts led me to wonder just whether much of my academic career has been shaped by my professional and personal concerns about undue obedience to authority.

Posted by: Doug B. | Mar 15, 2007 5:59:16 AM

Very interesting article. However, I question the choice to include Palestinian suicide bombers as examples of blind adherence to rules. The author acts as if Palestinians have absolutely no independent reason to want to harm Israelis. The situation is simply too complex to treat Israelis as purely innocent victims.

Posted by: Lena | Mar 15, 2007 1:49:41 PM

1. Doug and Judge Kopf: when you have a moment, and you're not discoursing about cruelty (and it's "banality"), take a look-see at the Pekin Federal Prison CAMP, where the rural federal employees mete out their own particular, unobserved and unobstructed punishments. No lay person is permitted on these federal facilities for oversight..they would be considered trespassers--like the nun-protesters doing time at the camps.

2. Lena, and your stupidity about suicide bombers being ok to harm Israelis....shut up.

Posted by: Fluffy | Mar 15, 2007 3:33:56 PM

Equally powerful is The Power of Nightmares

"It began over 30 years ago as the dream that politics could create a better world, began to fall apart. Out of that collapse came two groups; the islamists and the neoconservatives. Looking back, we can now see that these groups were the last political idealists, who in an age of growing disillusion tried to reassert the inspirational power of political visions, that would give meaning to people's lives. But both have failed in their attempts to transform the world, and instead together they have created today's strange fantasy of fear, which politicians have seized on. Because in an age when all the grand ideas have lost credibility, fear of a phantom enemy is all the politicians have left to maintain their power. The Power of Nightmares is a three hour special PBS aired and every American should see it . . . "

We are not talking traditional Conservatives here, who I believe have great respect for the Constitution, and after viewing this documentary the following quote of Cheney's will make sense:

''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''

Posted by: George | Mar 16, 2007 4:16:43 PM

the three strike law is administered on an ad hoc, totally arbitrary basis. Which runs afoul of a due process guarantee to be free from capricious, arbitrary punishment, which would constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

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