What difference can be made by one person, one voice?

On the issues you are most passionate about, can your one voice really make a difference?

We’ve all wondered about this at one time or another.

I think you’d be surprised by what the scientific research has to say about it. I was.

Let’s go back to Yale University, 1961, to one of the most famous psychology experiments ever done, the Milgram experiment.

Here’s how the experiment went: Each participant (a volunteer who agreed to participate in the study) was told they’d be the “teacher,” teaching another participant, “the learner”, a set of word pairs. When the learner got an answer wrong, an experiment administrator–an official looking authority figure in a gray coat–told the teacher to give the learner a painful electric shock.

Thankfully, the learners weren’t really being shocked — they were actors, but the teachers didn’t know that. As far as the teachers knew, they were delivering painful and potentially extremely harmful electric shocks to another human being. Milgram’s question was: Would they do it? And what factors would impact whether they would do it?

Though many of the teachers expressed concern as they administered shocks and heard screams of pain from the learners, a shocking 65% of “teachers” continued giving the shocks.

The study showed that when firmly instructed by an authority figure, most people shift into “obedience” mode and listen to the instructions – even if they need to betray their conscience.

Unfortunately, the study has been replicated dozens of times yielding similar results.

I’ve known about this study for over a decade, but last week I learned about some variations of the study that inspired me.

I wanted to share them with you, because they have everything to do with you.

In one version of the study, an actor played another “teacher,” and sat right next to the subject so the subject could, essentially, look over his shoulder and see what another teacher was doing.

In the experiment, the “planted” teacher administered all the shocks without protest or reservation. 100% of the volunteer subjects followed suit, also delivering the shocks.

We’ve all been in these situations — uncomfortable with what we are being asked to do. We look around to see — do other people think this is reasonable? If everyone else is crossing the street against the light, or pretending it’s normal to do something that harms the earth, or ignoring the homeless person on the street, we tend to do the same, even if we feel concerned or have reservations about it.

But listen to this. In the opposite variation of the study, two actors played teachers, again sitting right next to the subject. The two “planted” teachers rebelled — they refused to keep giving the shocks. Watching their rebellion, only 10% of the subjects complied.

It’s pretty stunning. The number of people doing harm to other human beings changed tenfold depending on whether there was a peer nearby speaking up against that harm, or a peer going along with it.

At one time or another, all of us ponder the question, “Can one voice make a difference?”

When it comes to standing up for a dissenting point of view, when it comes to saying no to violence or cruelty, the answer is clearly: yes.

In many ways, life is the Milgram experiment. We are often being told – subtly if not explicitly – to do the things that do harm – to do things that harm the earth, to turn a blind eye to the suffering in our communities, to accept as “just the way it is” things that in fact do and perpetuate harm. Can we be the ones to say no?

What tables do you sit at — in your work, in your community, in your family, where you could be the one to speak up?


Join the discussion 21 Comments

  • Anna says:

    I’ve never heard about this dimension of the Milgram experiment. It makes sense though, since we look to others for social cues. It is shocking how easily people follow a perceived authority.

  • Juliette Storch says:

    One person does make a difference! As Margaret Mead said, “~Never doubt that a small group of commited people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. ~ This is my mantra!

  • Tara,
    I love this blog, thank you. I’ve spent my life going against the norm, in favor of what I think is right.

    It’s fascinating to me that only 10% of people complied in this study when given an example, and it encourages me to keep going, spreading the good word and sharing what I need to say about health and nutrition.

    It’s so easy to feel like you can’t make a difference, or that nobody is listening, or that you’re not creating change.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Jane says:

    Excellent article, Tara. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.

  • Tim says:

    Wow! Thanks for this. I work with a lot of young high school and college athletes. Two days ago I saw this happen with a high school girls soccer team I was working with. One of the newer girls was struggling to learn a new movement in an agility drill. One of the more experienced girls stepped out of the drill, took the girls who was struggling aside and grabbed a soccer ball. She put it at her feet and said, ” Now just do what you do with the ball when you’re on the field.” In an instant the girl connected the movement to the drill and jumped right back in. This time with confidence and success. No one told the first girl to do that and she didn’t ask for anyone’s permission. She just stepped up to help a team mate. It sound small but it was powerful. It changed the relationships and the atmosphere in the room. It said, ” it’s ok to struggle; we’re in this together; I’m with you; we help each other when we need to; “. It reminded me that we all learn in different ways. One small thing, by one individual who – so cool. I can see why her team mates have chosen her be their captain. Sorry to prattle on but your post and that experienced connected so strongly. Thanks!

  • Sharon says:

    Psychological experiment done on dogs many years ago.
    Dog was in a cage hungry and thristy the 2nd half of cage had water and food.
    When dog went to the other side of the cage to eat or drink dog was shocked.
    Dog was conditioned to not eat or drink.

    This was used in an analogy to being in an abusive situation.
    People may ask why didn’t she leave? She was conditioned like the dog in this experiment.
    Once victim realized she is the dog she then understood her plight.

  • Lorraine says:

    Tara, deeply inspiring to know that going against the norm/grain is still heroic and the right thing to do to be of service.

  • Tisha says:

    Hello Tara! This really resonates with me today. I work with educators who implement a violence prevention program called Green Dot which focuses on the power of bystanders to step in when they see signs of power based personal violence, or a culture that supports it. We often say to those being trained to be active bystanders that they might feel that as one person that they can’t do something. But, our reality is that we aren’t just one person. We are a whole world of one persons who together add up to a big deal! And the good news is in most cases, whether around this issue or others, we as bystanders outnumber the others!

    Thank you your words. For the reminder and invitation!

  • Karen says:

    Tara, thank you for this important topic. And not only can we speak up with our literal voices, but with our bodies as well. Thinking about Rosa Parks and others who singularly sparked a social justice movement for change. Art, music, poetry–these too are vehicles for speaking up and making a difference. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=it73sIt4Vjs

  • kathryn says:

    i never heard about this experiment before…but it makes total sense to me.

    i weirdly have some uncontrollable part of me that if i see an animal being abused or a child being yelled at by a parent i can’t help myself but get in their face. not in any violent way but calmly telling them that they are being abusive. fortunately this behavior has never gotten me in trouble. i just hope i give people something to think about and hopefully they change their behavior. but i just can’t keep quiet…it’s not in me to allow bullying or abuse to happen. so i guess i’m one voice that hopes to make a difference.

  • joyuslion says:

    wooohoooo count me in!!!!!

  • joyuslion says:

    I truly believe that there is going to come a time where we are going to have to make a decision… are we going to be brave enough to stand against a crowd for what is right? I think we are being prepared now for that. Don’t cry when you have to wait in a long line or a great friend drops you… toughen up and open your heart!

  • Donna Davis says:

    Hello Tara:

    Thank you for this inspiring post that stands up to the test of reality. If we give “influence” so much credit for its power to sway us and others, why not influence for good? I like the way you have turned this conclusion around to its positive pole.
    “The great teacher never knows where her influence ends.”
    keep up your wonderful work

  • Elizabeth says:

    Crystal Clear Tara,

    You write nothing but significant information, delivered with such succinct eloquence and spiritual grace. Whatever the topic, you pierce right through with power and poise and no ego driven preaching from what I’ve ever read of yours! Consider running as President in the next elections – we need you!! In the meantime, the far-reaching ripple effects of your teachings, poems, and all your words in any form, are being felt across the globe, contributing to a new, growing tsunami movement that is helping to uplift the planet!

    I would definitely like to have you on my upcoming TV show based in Europe – very global, multi-cultural, spiritual, and highly entertaining – driving messages home through music and laughter!

    Peace and blessings,


  • Joy says:

    Poignant. And, perfect timing! Thank you 🙂

  • Stacy says:

    Thank You so much Tara! This experiment is eye-opening. I have felt like a black sheep at times when I have spoken up for my feelings, and sometimes it feels like a revolutionary action to just speak up! I have been searching for enouragement, support and love via a step by step program… your poetry is awesome and really powerful. Thank You to all the other women (and men:) who are out there doing their best to hold their ground… like Tom Petty sings, “Honey you don’t have to live like a refugee!” There are so many inspiring methods of healing out there, such as tapping in.. developed by EMDR practioners to tap in the positive (similar to EFT-emotional freedom technique). Thank you.

  • Shieralyn says:

    I just did had to stand up against a boss over something which I believe is right. Reading this is very comforting. God bless you Tara…

  • Tara Leaver says:

    This is so fascinating! And a bit worrying! But also very heartening and such a great illustration of why ‘but what can I do? I’m only one person’ isn’t really a valid question.

  • absolutely amazing discovery and something to really consider it how one lives ones life. Thankyou for these insights.

  • […] “It’s pretty stunning. The number of people doing harm to other human beings changed tenfold depending on whether there was a peer nearby speaking up against that harm, or a peer going along with it.” One Voice – Tara Sophia Mohr […]

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