The Authority Problem

By Anthony Gold

How much pain would willingly inflict on another person, particularly if that person was screaming out in agony?

Think about your answer, then consider this horrifying experiment.

A researcher tells two volunteer participants that he is conducting a study on memory and learning. One volunteer will be assigned the role of teacher and the other the role of learner. The volunteers randomly draw slips of paper to determine who will be in which role.

However, one of the volunteers is actually an actor who is in on the experiment with the researcher. The two slips of paper both read teacher but the confederate claims to have drawn the slip that reads learner.

The learner is then strapped into a chair with electrodes from a high-power machine affixed to his skin. The researcher explains that the teacher will read a list of word pairs to the learner and then test the learner’s ability to recall the words. The learner presses a button to indicate his response to each question. If the answer is wrong, the teacher administers an electric shock to the learner, with the voltage increasing for each wrong answer. The max voltage the machine can deliver is 450 volts – which is potentially paralysis-inducing.

Thus begins the famous Stanley Milgram experiment at Yale University, first conducted in 1961 and repeated thousands of times over the last several decades all around the world – with the exact same results.

As the learner continues to make mistakes, the teacher must administer shocks with increasing voltages. Unbeknownst to the teacher, no shocks are actually delivered to the learner, but the actor responds as if the shocks are real and the pain is getting worse. Not surprisingly, by the time the voltage is up near 135 volts, most teachers begin to question the purpose of the experiment.

However, what happens next is mind-boggling.

If at any time the teacher wants to halt the experiment, the researcher verbally prompted the teacher saying that the experiment must continue. And so, incredibly, nearly two-thirds of all participants go all the way up to the max voltage of 450V, even though the learner is screaming out in agony.


All it took to secure obedience from the teachers was that small verbal prompt.

Milgram wrote, “Stark authority was pitted against the participants’ strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and with the participants’ ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not.” He titled his experiment The Perils of Obedience.

These experiments were first conducted around the time of the trial of German Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. And what Milgram uncovered was that obedience to authority can quite easily trump personal conscience – what A Course in Miracles refers to as the authority problem.

The ego is that “authority” that perpetually counsels us that we are separate from others and that our happiness and peace are dependent upon external circumstances. The ego further convinces us that our distress and unhappiness are the result of other people or situations.

The authority problem is “the root of all evil”. Every symptom the ego makes involves a contradiction in terms. Everything the ego tells you that you need will hurt you. Therefore ask not of yourself what you need, for you do not know, and your advice to yourself will hurt you. For what you think you need will merely serve to tighten up your world against the light, and render you unwilling to question the value that this world can really hold for you. (T-3.VI.7; T-13.VII.11)

And while deep down we know there must be another way, we willingly follow the dictates of the ego projecting our delusions and readily administering massive electric shocks to others and ourselves.

Join us in Monday’s class where we’ll probe this concept of the authority problem and why we so easily fall prey to the whims of the ego. Following which, we will explore the still, quiet voice of oneness that reminds us of another way, and how we can experience an incredible peace that knows no limits. I look forward to seeing you then.

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