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Milgram and Zimbardo Experiments: Controlling People's Behavior

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People who work in organizations tend to have their behaviors slightly or drastically influenced to achieve the organization’s goals. This situation is shown in the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments. The Milgram experiment took place at Yale University where forty male volunteers were selected to be ‘teachers’. The ‘learner’ who was an actor was sitting on an electric chair and was required to learn a list of word pairs. The teachers were asked by an experimenter who also was an actor to test the learner by telling him a word and asking him to name its pair. If the learner made a mistake, the teacher was told to administer an electric shock to him and to increase the level of shock each time. The Zimbardo experiment took place at Stanford University where 24 male students were chosen from 75 volunteers to confirm the role of prisoners and guards in a simulation of a prison ( Zimbardo, P. G., 1971). The Zimbardo experiment was shut down on the sixth day already, as the students took their roles much too seriously, to the point where the experience became dangerous. Indeed, the guards started behaving sadistically towards the prisoners who became increasingly submissive. This shows us how organizations can make perfectly sane people act immorally, and do things they would not have done in normal circumstances. Firstly, we will discuss how those experiments are only reproductions of situations that really happened in the past and still do nowadays. Secondly, using the experiments we are going to analyze the reasons for people’s change in behavior while being in organizations and finally, we will discuss how this can be used to make management more efficient in companies.

Firstly, the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments are simply replications of what happens quite often in life as we know it. Indeed, those experiments confirm once and for all that organizations and groups can make human beings commit evil acts. Indeed, several examples illustrate this fact. For instance, the extremist political movements such as communism in the Soviet Union or Nazism in Germany during the 20th century. Indeed, thousands of psychologically stable and seemingly normal men started killing and torturing innocent people and said they were simply ‘following orders’ when they were asked about it. Numerous cases like these were evaluated during the Nuremberg Trials. The volunteers in the Milgram experiment used the same reason to justify their heinous actions. Indeed, in both cases, they seem to think that the fact that they were obeying someone’s orders detaches them from their actions.

Another example could be cults or extremist religious groups. One would be the Japanese extremist religious cult, Aum Shinrikyo which is mostly known for being responsible for the sarin gas attack on five crowded Tokyo subway trains on March 20th, 1995, which killed 13 people and injured more than 6,300 people (Reader, I. 2000). This could be linked to the Zimbardo Stanford prison experiment where the members or participants became so immersed in the groups, their norms, rules, and goals that they forgot about their personal morality and completely lose their sense of identity, which causes them to act in manners that they would not be capable of individually.

Another example would be men joining the army during wars. Indeed, war can turn perfectly ordinary men into killers who take radical actions to survive and to fight for the prosperity of their country. Propaganda would also brainwash people into believing sometimes ethically wrong ideologies such as racism and antisemitism as they are convinced that it is for the wellbeing of society and their country (Encyclopedia Britannica). For instance, ordinary people would report jews to the Gestapo. People would also report opponents of communism to the KGB during the communist regime of the Soviet Union.

Therefore, multiple reasons and factors make people act differently while being part of an organization which was shown by the experiments. First of all, the people need to believe that the cause they are working for is legitimate. For example, in both experiments, the participants said that they thought they were acting for the benefit of the experiment and therefore, for the greater good. This depends on the way the project is presented to them and by whom. Indeed, since all human beings were brought up by obeying a figure of authority they trust, when they are given orders by someone they think is important and genuine they will be more likely to do what they are told without questioning. Indeed, children obey their teachers, employees obey their bosses, and so forth. This is what happens in the Milgram experiment when the experimenter who is in fact an actor asks the volunteers to administer an electric shock to the ‘learner’. The volunteers listen to him because they think he is important and that they should obey him. After all, he presented himself as a figure they should trust. He was also wearing a uniform which he look professional and legitimate, and which made the volunteers trust and obey him. A variation of the same experiment was conducted in which the experimenter did not wear a uniform: the level of obedience decreased by 20% (McLeod, S. A. 2007). People also tend to want to listen to someone they find charismatic or a person that they love or admire.

Receiving a reward can also influence people’s behaviors, especially if they believe the person offering the reward is legitimate and trustworthy. For instance, if a manager offers a promotion to his employees, it can motivate them to work harder. Effectively, the Milgram experiment’s volunteers were paid 4,50 dollars to participate (McLeod, S. A., 2007), and the Zimbardo prison experiment’s volunteers were paid 15 dollars per day (Zimbardo, P. G., 1971).

Another reason why organizations have such a great influence over people’s behaviors is that the participants enjoy being part of a group. Indeed, they become in a state of deindividuation because they become part of the group and lose their individual identities. They merely follow the actions of the others members of the group without thinking about what they would normally do and about their personal agency and morality. People enjoy feeling like they are a part of something important and take pleasure in feeling included and wanted. For example, during the Zimbardo experiment, the selected participants started to lose their individual identity which is partly because they were all wearing the same uniforms. Effectively, the ‘prisoners’ would mostly talk about prison and not about their lives on the outside and the guards thought they had to maintain order in the prison and prevent the prisoners from escaping at all costs. They all started to act as though they had forgotten that the experiment was just that: an experiment.

Finally, people need to believe that themselves and what they are doing is important. Organizations have the power of controlling people’s conduct if the people in charge of the group can convince the members that they are working for a noble cause and that what they are doing is useful. Indeed, when the volunteers in the Milgram experiment were asked about what they had done and why they kept doing what the ‘experimenter’ told them to do, they said it was because he declared that it was for the experiment. A similar situation occurred during the Zimbardo experiment: the further into the experiment, the more the volunteers thought that what they were doing was important and that they had a real mission to carry out even if it meant being violent towards others. People need to be convinced that what they are working for is beneficial for society and even for the world. They have to think that they are serving an important purpose. Indeed, the leaders will make-believe every member of the organization that they are needed and an essential component of the group. As seen in both experiments, giving someone importance and power that they did not have before can drastically change their behavior because human beings crave those.

If it is human nature to experience such a change of behavior while being part of organizations and to be so influenced by groups, then we can ask ourselves if it is possible to make this type of situation have a positive outcome and to make people act to do good and make the world a better place. Since a company is a type of organization, managers, CEOs or other types of leaders can use this to make the employees more efficient and to generate more profit. Effectively, if the manager is respected and looked up to by his employees because he has a lot of knowledge or is skilled in his field, he is more likely to be listened to. He will be perceived as more trustworthy by his employees. Indeed, they will work harder to satisfy and make proud a figure they admire and therefore, be more productive which will make the company more successful.

The leaders can also make the employees’ working environment more pleasant and enjoyable. Indeed, if the managers treat them well, they will want to be more assiduous and more efficient. It is also in the power of the managers to offer raises and promotions which can make the employees more obedient. The physical work-related environment itself can strongly influence the well-being and efficiency of the employees. For example, the high-tech company Apple will have a new campus building that will be much more eco-friendly and will be able to welcome 13,000 employees (Konbini, 2017). They will have better offices which are more modern with an amazing view of a natural environment.

As it was said earlier and shown by the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments, for any organization to function correctly and achieve its goals, its members have to believe that they are fighting for a noble cause. Indeed, the manager or CEO needs to convince his employees that what they are doing and the goals of the company are important for the world. Effectively, if the employees believe that the company can improve certain aspects of technology, society, or another important area, they will want to be a part of this improvement. The manager can also persuade every employee their role and the function they perform is essential for the success of the whole company or branch. For example, Steve Jobs could easily convince his employees to work harder like doing long tasks in a little amount of time (Isaacson, W. 2012).

However, when the managers use those techniques, they have to keep the workplace sane and not ignore business ethics by practicing corporate social responsibility. Indeed, they must not abuse their authority and mistreat their employees. The manager’s manner of distributing promotions of giving sanctions to the staff members should always be healthy, rational, and fair. He should also not make them execute unethical actions for the success of the business, to make more profit, and so forth. The employees should also not develop unhealthy behavior and treat each other well.

To conclude, we have seen that the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments are simply replications of heinous organizations that existed in the past and still do now. They confirm the theories about how organizations can control and change people’s behavior. The experiments show us how groups or movements can influence people’s actions so much. Indeed, people are more likely to obey if they are led by a legitimate figure of authority, someone they trust or admire. Receiving a reward can also impact their way of acting. Plus, being part of an organization can make people feel included, wanted as they belong somewhere which they enjoy. Some people would do anything to keep this status including committing violent deeds. Furthermore, convincing people that their role is important for society and they are working for a noble cause can strongly influence their doing. Nevertheless, the power of organizations on people’s behavior can be turned into something positive. Indeed, managers can use this to boost their employees and make the business more successful. Effectively, the more the employees trust and admire the manager or CEO, the harder they will work to satisfy them. The conditions in which they are working can also influence their behavior. Furthermore, the employees have to believe in the purpose and abilities of the company to do great things. The managers can also convince that their role is important and even essential to the wellbeing of the company this way they will feel like they are a part of something. However, to not reproduce some heinous scenarios, the manager should not make their employees do morally wrong actions and have to make sure the working environment is sane. 

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