The willingness in CIA agents, the average working person, students and everyone in between to abuse their power given the situation is a shocking fact to most. Although, most people feel they could never hurt others or abuse their power, time and time again both science and history tell us otherwise. The things people are willing to do to others when given a position of power would shock and disturb most people. But it has become apparent, that given the right justification for their actions, and placed in the right situation, good people are willing to abuse their power and do unthinkable things.
If people can justify their actions they are willing to do things they claim they would never do. Most people don’t believe they would ever willingly hurt someone, but it has been proven through experiments such as the Milgram Experiment, that people are willing to do so given the right justification. In this experiment people were told to administer shocks to a person on the other side of the glass every time they answered a question wrong (the volts per shock increased until the person started to scream, beg, or die). The person later was revealed to be an actor, who wasn’t actually being shocked, but at the time the test subjects didn’t know this. During the experiment ‘nearly every participant paused, and most turned to the experimenter to indicate verbally or nonverbally their reluctance to continue,’ (Burger). This is because they know what they are doing is wrong. But, if they can tell themselves that someone is making them do it, it’s not real, or it’s for the better good, then they can suddenly do the previously thought to be unthinkable. All because they can shift the blame or justify their actions. When “a hesitant volunteer asked, what would happen if something were to happen to that person, at which point the authority hastily replied, ‘I’m responsible if anything happens.’ This answer appeared to relieve the volunteer, who continued administering the shocks” (Jaeger). This is because they can now shift the blame from themselves, and say that what happens isn’t their fault, and they are not the cause of these things.
Given the right situation people are willing to do bad things. The best example of this is found in the Stanford Prison Experiment. In this experiment twenty four college men were assessed as mentally sound, and then assigned at random the role of prison guard and prisoner (What the Creator). They were told that during the next fourteen days they needed to realistically live the lives of prison guards or prisoners. But the experiment turned sour fast, as the guards quickly started to abuse their power. Within two days multiple prisoners had mental breakdowns, and this fictional world for the experiment became too real. The two week experiment was cut short after just six days. This poses some questions, such as:
What kind of guard would I have been? What kind of prisoner? How could people do this, what are other situations in everyday life where people do this? It is really about abuse of power, so you want people to ask what happens when people get in positions of power, like a boss; it makes you think about bullies. It ought to trigger lots of reflection (What the Creator).
That most people are reluctant to challenge and confront authority figures who abuse their power … in many cases, lower-level employees engage in bad behavior. In the corporate world, specifically, people may feel inclined to act against their better judgment to obey a supervisor, manager, or senior-level executive. Such behavior may be driven out of fear of losing one’s job if they challenge authority, or simply out of a desire to please (Jaeger).
It is really important to understand these crazy abuses of power do not just occur in psychological experiments. Abuses of power happen all the time form in business, to schools, all the way to the government and law enforcement. So, “an organization like the CIA can create a system in which decent humans inflict pain on strangers. The social good: fighting the war on terror. The authority figure: CIA higher-ups who told personnel to continue enhanced interrogations despite doubts” (Resnick). Anyone can become this abusive with their power. There doesn’t seem to just be one type of mindset that evolves into this, everyone has the potential.
So in conclusion, what allows people to abuse their power is the perfect balance of the right situation mixed with a justification of their actions that that can shift any blame onto. When people have something they can shift the blame to they don’t feel like they they are responsible for something bad. They feel like they did the right thing, or it wasn’t their fault (depending on their personal reasoning). Not only do people need a good justification for themselves, but they first need to be placed in a situation that will allow them to abuse their power. This situation could be anything, from a role in an experiment, to a federal prison guard, or even just a manager at a standard job. But if they are placed in the right situation where they can abuse their power, and can justify their actions, good everyday people will abuse their power.
- Biddle, Craig. ‘Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told to Do Is Wrong.’ The Objective Standard, Winter 2017, p. 95+. General OneFile, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A522760161/GPS?u=j043907002&sid=GPS&xid=5783bb2f. Accessed 17 Oct. 2018.
- Jaeger, Jaclyn. ‘Milgram’s compliance legacy: Good behavior comes from constant reinforcement by a voice of authority, because most people actually need permission to do the right thing.’ Compliance Week, June 2017, p. 68. General OneFile, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A535031119/GPS?u=j043907002&sid=GPS&xid=2dac80ba. Accessed 17 Oct. 2018.
- Resnick, Brian. ‘Why Torture?’ Nationaljournal.com, 10 Dec. 2014. General OneFile, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A393059859/GPS?u=j043907002&sid=GPS&xid=d905b50d. Accessed 17 Oct. 2018.
- ‘What the Creator of the Stanford Prison Experiment Thinks of the New Film About It.’ Science of Us, 23 July 2015. General OneFile, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A507891050/ITOF?u=j043907002&sid=ITOF&xid=0b4515e1. Accessed 16 Oct. 2018.