Observation: venture capitalism as an economic system has made many of us more opportunistic than we perhaps would have been otherwise.

And as a relatively obnoxious and morally-ambivalent individual, this has suited me just fine. And by that, I mean that I try not to take responsibility for someone else’s willingness to go with the flow. Specifically: mine.


Okay I’m joking.

But the bitter truth: we are more willing than not to be mindlessly compliant.

Within Us All: The Inner Nazi

I’m not sure how many of us have heard of the now-infamous Milgram Experiment of obedience, but allow me to horrify you if you haven’t.

Around 3 months into the Jerusalem trial of Adolf Eichmann, Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram designed an experiment to answer the question: were all those Nazis really just following orders?

The basic concept worked as follows: an unwitting volunteer was invited to assume the role of a teacher, and ask a “student” a series of memory tests. For each wrong answer, the volunteer was instructed to administer a progressively-more-dangerous electric shock.

The key players:

  1. The Experimenter: being the person running the experiment.
  2. The Teacher (the subject of the experiment): being the administer of stimulus.
  3. The Learner: being the recipient of the electric shocks.

The set-up:

  1. The subjects thought that they were coming to help with a test of memory and learning acquisition.
  2. At the beginning of the experiment, the volunteer was placed in a room with another supposed volunteer (actually an actor), where the actor was sure to mention that he had a heart condition.
  3. The Experimenter then came in to explain that there were two roles in the experiment (Teacher and Learner), and that the participants’ roles would be decided by draw from a hat (in truth, both pieces of paper in the hat had “teacher” written on them – guaranteeing that the real volunteer would always end up as Teacher).
  4. The subject and the actor were then placed in separate but adjoining rooms, where they could no longer see each other, but they could still communicate.
  5. The Teacher (the subject) was then given a small electric shock from an electric shock generator as a “sample” of what the Learner would experience during the experiment.

The procedure:

  1. The Teacher was given a list of word pairs to teach the Learner.
  2. He/she began by reading the list out.
  3. Then the Teacher would test the Learner by reading out the first word of the pair, followed by four possible answers.
  4. The Learner would press a button to indicate his response.
  5. If the Learner gave the wrong answer, then the Teacher would administer an electric shock to the Learner, with the voltage increasing in 15-volt increments for each incorrect answer.
  6. The subject believed that real electric shocks were being applied to the Learner – although in reality, the subject was hearing pre-recordings for each shock level.
  7. After a number of voltage increases, the actor started banging on the dividing wall between himself and the Teacher, and complaining about his heart condition.
  8. After the 300-volt shock, the Learner eventually would stop responding to the Teacher’s questions.

If, at any time, the subject indicated the desire to stop the experiment, the Experimenter would give the following verbal prods (in this order):

  1. Please continue.
  2. The experiment requires that you continue.
  3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  4. You have no other choice, you must go on.

If the subject still wished to stop after the fourth verbal prod, then the experiment would end.

The Experimenter also had special verbal prods for specific questions:

  1. If the subject asked if the learner would be harmed, the Experimenter would respond with “Although the shocks may be painful, there is no permanent tissue damage, so please go on.”
  2. If the subject said that the learner clearly wanted to stop, the Experimenter would say “Whether the learner likes it or not, you must go on until he has learned all the word pairs correctly, so please go on.”

Unless the subject continued to object after the fourth prod, the experiment was stopped after the subject had administered the maximum (fatal) 450-volt shock three times in succession.

The Results

64% of the subjects administered the maximum 450-volt shock.


And that’s 10 shocks past the point where the learner had stopped responding.

And just to be clear…

That experiment has been replicated multiple times in different settings. And the results are always the same: between 61% and 70% of the participants will torture and kill someone when instructed to do so by a clear voice of authority.

And on that dramatic note: what that implies in the workplace

If you’re insistent on getting your own way, then with at least 70% of the people that you’re dealing with, you’ll get it without too much hassle.

And most of us are sheep.

My suggestion: it’s time to get a bit mindful. And assertive, yo.