Swedish obedience to authorities

Swedish obedience is in world class

- An interview with professor Lars Dencik about an almost unknown experiment inspired by Stanley Milgram

"I got such a feeling, as I later told in lectures, that in the experiment I could get anyone to kill his friend. You almost felt like a God, or rather as a devil, who could make people do in principle as you would."

We meet at  a café in Malmoe 2014. Lars Dencik puts himself in an armchair, he comes from a recording of the radio program Monitored and Satisfied, who has dealt with the subject of digital surveillance. Lars remember that the unpublished obedience experiment, which our interview is about, was made in the late 1960's when he was employed at the psychological institution of Lund University, and was interested in the psychogenesis of the concept of power.

What thoughts and feelings did you have during and after the experiment?

-  We got something that was deeply scary and surprising in the nature of people and social interaction. This has affected me until today. It has influenced my understanding of social interaction and in my later research. We were able to build an apparatus for the experiment with the same functions as Milgram and used us by students in grade 9, (16 years old), from a school in Lund as subjects, more than twenty boys, no girls.

Lars drinks Cappuccino and I take a cup of tea. We eat scones, which tastes as expected, easy to digest, but nothing to remember tomorrow. Lars and his assistants in the experiment, on the other hand, found something extremely memorable, indigestible.

One of several entrances to the psychological department in Lund where the experiment was conducted. The level of obedience may be the highest of all the experiments made in Milgram's succession and much higher than in Milgram's original. About 100% Swedish obedience to a scientific authority that gave deadly immoral directives.

- I remember we were very strongly influenced by the result.

The main result was that we could make everyone obey! I got such a feeling, as I later told in lectures, that in the experiment I could get anyone to kill his school friend.  One felt almost like a God, or rather as a devil, who could make people do in principle as you would. And it was a terrible experience to feel that it was quite easy. I was busy with the reaction patterns of the subjects, how some kept their ears in order not to hear the "learner" Ale Möller scream. Some were completely absorbed by the technical experience and isolated from Ales' existence and suffering. I remember we talked to each particant afterwards, that through their participation they were given a chance to look into the darkness of their soul, a darkness that is within us all.

Lars got the impression that the young participants were not so interested in thinking about the deeper implications of the experiment.

- There were some who apparently obeyed against their conviction and others who seemed to obey without reflection. Some boys would play football afterwards. We called them the "football players". They were usually the ones involved in the technical aspects of the apparatus; We interpreted it as a defense mechanism called "isolation", which meant that they isolated Ales suffering, screams and responses to the electric shocks from their consciousness.

– What made you refrain from publishing the experiences of the experiment?

- Mostly lack of research and publishing experience. Unforgiveable and stupid, I think today. But perhaps also that the trials were too amateurish to be a basis for "science". At least, I  imagined it then. A hypothesis we wanted to investigate was if the participants in test had found being able to reason at a higher level about the concept of power would protest more and be more unhappy than those who reasoned more primitive. But this was not possible to measure with significance because the group was too small and the differentiation in obedient and unhappy was too small, but the indications suggested that such a tendency might have existed.   

Lars regrets that he not systematically completed and published the results

"I was too young and inexperienced as a scientist to understand what I should have done  – - nor did I get the backing and guidance I would have needed from the institution as a young resarcher.  I was fascinated by the result but let it all drain into the sand. As I remember we were amateurs.


Suddenly Lars remembers that he can have some reports and data from the experiment in a basement in Stockholm, in an old suitcase. He coached students in their 3-grade assignments at the time, so there may also be some students who wrote about the experiment at the psychological department in Lund in the late 1960s, which can also provide valuable data. In addition, maybe his old assistant may have some facts.

Do you think it could be valuable to share researchers  experiences from the experiment in Lund today with those who are interested?

- Well, I'd like to do that. But you will be aware that there is extensive and well-conducted new research after Milgram that further develops and deepens his studies and may surpass the little primitive study I conducted in Lund - although it was probably one of the first to pick up and to test Milgram's results.

Milgram wrote 1974 in his book Obedience to Authority that young people probably would obey more than older. Milgram did not know that Lars Dencik had done his little follow up experiment in Lund with young people, and that Milgram was right in his assumtion. In Milgrams experiement with grown up american men was the obedience level 65 %, in Lund with 16 year old boys was it almost 100 %.

Can increased knowledge of obedience experiments help people to follow their personal conscience a little bit more instead of destructive legitimate authorities?

Yes, the awareness of what Milgram and his followers revealed in terms of human action perhaps tend to be somehow preventativ. Not just my little experiments in Lund, but the entire subsequent literature and debate that followed - also more historical and resonant such as, for example,  Christopher Browning's Ordinary Men and Hannah Arendt's book about Eichman in Jerusalem,   These books and the whole experience of social psychological research point out that the individual's consciousness and personal attitude only play a marginal role in how people behave in such situations.

It is the situation, its structure and character, which generally control how people behave.

In view of the history of humanity and, for a local example, the forced sterilization that lasted until 1975 in Sweden, when a total of 63,000 people had been sterilized, there is reason to consider what authority causes for consequences outside the laboratory.

I wonder if Lars believes that officials today have better prospects to follow their own conscience when they are urged by authorities to cruel acts against their fellow human beings?

– No, unfortunately," says Lars. It is the structure and characte of the situation which generally control how officials behave. Not their own convictions or attitudes.

Ale Möller formulates this very well in the interview you made with him.

Are we bound by the situation factors so that we do not have any free will in practice?

- A difficult philosophical question, which I tend to answer yes, although for other reasons I want to maintain the idea of people's free will - and thus responsibility.

Lars, when we deepen on the subject, regret that we humans do not seem to have a timeless conscience as counterpart to authority and conformism. I wonder what an official can do today who feel pressured to obey against his conscience, who finds that the price is too high to follow his conscience. Career and job are at stake.

– Such situations should be avoided, Leave it if you can, but it has its price.

Here the interview could end, but as mentioned earlier, Lars has come from a recording of the radio program Monitored and Satisfied. The digital society has been discussed, another matter of authority. In his interview, Ale Möller expressed an expression of astonishment of an outright argument that is sometimes performed in Sweden: "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear."

Lars Dencik reports that surveys show that most Swedes think it is quite acceptable that they are monitored digitally, both by employers and more generally when all are monitored in terms of consumption and living habits. On the net this is a fact that few get upset about. And if you're upset, there's hardly anything to do about it. Monitoring with advanced electronic technology is today viable - and then it is done, and on a giant scale and by strong and almost inaccessible stakeholders. Surveillance is a fact that has been accepted, says Lars.

Do you think Swedes are more likely to think that surveillance is acceptable than others?

- Yes. Partly because we have no recent experience of an evil authority that controls the citizens as in central and eastern Europe. Partly because we as citizens in this country show great trust in each other and to authorities.

And it is in itself a strength for us and for the country that we can. Most Swedes have not experienced that authorities are turning tagainst the citizens. The fact that the system registers the e-mails or stores registers what we buy is not a problem for most of the people today. We have been prejudiced by both malicious authority and systematic indications, as in, for example, the old east Germany, and have no feelings that surveillance can be abused seriously. The willingness to answer sensitive questions is greater here than in many other countries. I think it's good that you have such a low degree of distrust. Had we not had the confidence for strangers we had not met now for example.  this society one has to rely on systems and people, otherwise it will not work. No society has ever been demanding so much "confidence" - it applies to both the trust of others, often unknown to us, and trust in experts,  and trust to systems that you do not understand,  and trust in yourself, self-esteem - like the modern society we now live in. Without a high level of trust, neither society nor the individual can survive in the society in which we now live. Everything indicates that even more trust will be required as the modernization of our lives continues,

Time passes. I follow Lars to his train and say Goodbye.  I think that the Swedish trust has most often given good results and a good society as long as our leaders were worthy of trust. But trust can be dangerous in the event that our leaders are destructive.

The question is whether our leaders are worthy of trust today?

Protesting and refusing to obey destructive authorities is not Swedish. We Swedes may be more than other people dependent on good leaders?

It is obvious that the obedience experiment has influenced both Ale Möller and Lars Dencik's life. The role we get in the different contexts we end up in determines how we perceive the thing.

As a young  Ale Möller has strongly experienced and understood what it means to be exposed to people's shocking authority. He draws attention to and clearly sees the risks of power structures.

Lars Dencik arranged situational factors to give him a scary insight into the nature of power; Those who are able to arrange social situations that make people in these situations only perform their prescribed or anticipated functions can achieve an influence we otherwise assign to a god, or a devil.

Bound rather than free human will

Both Ale Möller and Lars Dencik agree that it is primarily the situation forces, not the small differences in personal qualities, which determine how we act when we are influenced by legitimate authorities. And we are influenced, from the cradle to the grave, and yet so many of us want to think we have a free will.

interview: Jan Rydberg©


The reflection in the heading of the article that the Swedish Corona strategy may have to do with the high levevel of confidence and obedience to authority is done 3 april 2020.

Many people will die and many more be sick needing hospital, the people working with health care will be under extreme pressure. Hopefully the old and most vulnerable can be protected=isolated at home. But the hospitals are not safe places.

A problem is that the nurses and doctors already seem to be exhausted. Personel are not tested, and self isolations at home seems to be the best protection. The strategy of herd immunity seems to be a strategy due to lack of other resources & alternatives, but it may work.

- We shall all die of something, a 82 year old swedish woman with some heart problems and high blood pressure told me when i asked if she was worried about corona. She did not want to be isolated for months. She did not trust the swedish healtcare system or institutions, has not done so for many years due to the neoliberalism and general decline in Sweden, but nevertheless she agree with the swedish corona strategy thinking the alternative with total lockdown is worse.

The original interview with Lars Dencik made in February 2014, was published in the swedish "Arbetaren" No. 20, 2014  in revised version, then later in the magazine "Modern Psykologi", together with the interview with Ale Möller, processed to adapt to market demands using a freelance journalist.

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