Nations and cultures differ among themselves in countless ways, ranging from something as superficial as how people dress, to more serious matters, such as unwritten rules of appropriate social conduct. But one of the universals of social behavior that transcends specific groups is the presence of hierarchical forms of social organization. That is, all civilized societies seem to have people in positions of authority who are recognized as having the power or the right to issue commands that others feel obligated to follow. Most of the time, these authority-follower relationships serve useful functions. For example, children need to listen to parents to teach them right from wrong, that it is dangerous to cross the street when the light turns red, and countless other things. But there is also a potentially darker side to commands from authorities: their ability to lead their followers to act in ways that violate the followers’ sense of right or wrong.
The most dramatic and powerful demonstration of this dark side of obedience to authority was provided by a classic series of experiments on obedience conducted by Stanley Milgram as a beginning assistant professor at Yale University in 1961-1962. The work was stimulated by his attempt to shed some light on the Holocaust—the systematic murder of six million Jewish men, women, and children during World War II by the Germans, aided by their allies. For Milgram, obedience seemed a likely explanation to pursue because it was generally known that Germany society placed a high value on unquestioning obedience to authorities. In fact, initially his plan was to repeat his experiment in Germany, after completing his research with American subjects. This plan was scrapped after completing his research at Yale because he found such a high degree of obedience among his American subjects that he saw no need to go to Germany.
Yale was Milgram’s first academic position after receiving his Ph.D. in social psychology from Harvard University. Although he was very creative and, later in his career, he conducted many other inventive studies, none surpassed his very first experiments, the obedience studies, in their importance and fame.
The subjects in the obedience experiments were normal adults who had responded to an ad in the New Haven Register, recruiting volunteers for a study of memory. When a subject arrived in Milgram’s lab, he was met by the experimenter, who explained that his job was to try to teach another subject—the learner— to memorize a list of adjective-noun pairs. During the testing phase, each time the learner made a mistake, the subject-teacher was to punish the learner with an electric shock by pressing one of a row of 30 switches on a very realistic looking “shock generator.” Above each switch was a voltage label, beginning with 15 volts and ending with 450 volts. The experimenter told the teacher-subject that the rule was that on each subsequent error he had to give the next, more intense shock. So, on the first mistake, he would press the first switch, which supposedly delivered 15 volts; then the next time the learner erred, the teacher would press the next switch, corresponding to 30 volts, and so on. And he was to continue with the procedure until the learner memorized all the word-pairs.
The learner, seated in an adjacent room, was to receive the shocks via electrodes attached to his wrist. In actuality, the shock box was a fake, well-crafted prop that did not really deliver shocks, and the learner was in cahoots with the experimenter, deliberately making mistakes on specific trials and responding with a scripted set of increasingly agonizing and pitiful protests. For example, at 120 volts, he yelled, “Ugh! This really hurts,” and by 195 volts he was howling, “Let me out of here! My heart’s bothering me! . . .” Whenever the subject hesitated, the experimenter commanded him to continue with such prepared prompts as “The experiment requires that you continue.” Despite the learner’s apparent suffering and the fact that the experimenter—though he projected an aura of technical proficiency—had no punitive means to enforce his commands, more than 60% of the subjects were fully obedient, continuing to “shock” the victim to the 450-volt maximum.
Importance of Obedience to Authority Studies
Did we need Milgram to teach us that people tend to obey authorities? Of course not. What he did show that was eye-opening was just how powerful this tendency is—powerful enough to override moral principles. When acting autonomously, people don’t generally hurt or harm an innocent individual who did nothing to merit harsh treatment. Yet, when commanded by an authority, most subjects readily did just that.
What is the psychological mechanism that enables an authority’s commands to transform a normally humane individual into a pitiless tormentor? According to Milgram, when a person accepts the legitimacy of an authority—that the authority has the right to dictate one’s behavior—that acceptance is accompanied by two changes in the person’s mental set. First, the person relinquishes responsibility for his or her actions to the authority, and in so doing yields to the authority’s judgments about the morality of what the person is requested to do. Second, the person accepts the authority’s definition of the situation. So, if the authority sees someone as deserving of punishment, the person will also adopt that viewpoint.
Almost as important to know about the obedience experiments as what they tell us is what they don’t tell us. It would be a mistake to conclude from Milgram’s results that beneath the veneer of civility that people usually exhibit in their social relations they are actually ruthless and vicious, and their pent-up meanness is held in check by the rules and laws of society. That is, Milgram’s laboratory merely created the opportunity for his subjects to give expression to their normally repressed sadistic tendencies. In other words, according to this view, Milgram’s experiments don’t enlighten people about the unexpected power of authorities, but merely expose the force of people’s destructive natures that are normally bottled up.
Milgram carried out more than 20 different versions of his obedience experiment, in addition to the one described. One of them clearly demolishes this contrary view. In this experiment, the beginning is very similar to Milgram’s other conditions. The teacher-subject “punishes” the learner for each mistake with increasingly intense shocks, while the learner, sitting on the other side of the wall, complains more and more vehemently. This continues to 150 volts, when something unusual happens. The experimenter tells the teacher that they will have to stop because the learner’s complaints are unusually strong, and he is concerned about the learner’s well-being. Suddenly, a protesting voice is heard from the adjacent room. The learner insists that the experiment continue. His friend who had been a previous participant in the experiment told him that he went all the way, and to stop now would be a blot on his own manliness. If bottled-up destructive urges were the underlying cause of the subjects’ behavior, they couldn’t have asked for a better excuse to vent them. And yet, not one single subject continued beyond this point. The experimental authority’s command was to stop, and everybody obeyed his commands.
The revelatory power of the obedience experiments goes beyond the vivid demonstration of people’s extreme readiness to obey authorities, even destructive ones. Milgram’s experiments also serve as powerful sources of support for one of the main lessons of social psychology: To paraphrase Milgram himself, often it is not the kind of person you are but, rather, the kind of situation you find yourself in that will determine how you act.
Among Milgram’s series of experiments, a subset of four, the four-part proximity series, speaks directly to this point. In these experiments, Milgram varied the physical and emotional distance between the subject-teacher and the learner. At one end, in the condition of greatest distance, the Remote condition, the teacher and learner are separated by a wall, and there is only minimal complaint from the learner: He bangs on the wall twice during the whole shock sequence. In the second condition—the Voice-Feedback condition— the two are brought closer, at least emotionally. They are still in separate rooms, but now vocal protests are introduced into the procedure. With increasing voltages, the learner’s complaints get more urgent and shrill. In the third condition—the Proximity (close and near) condition—distance is further reduced by seating the learner next to the teacher. Now the teacher not only hears the learner’s screams, but also sees him writhing in pain. In the fourth and final condition, the teacher-learner distance is reduced to zero. In this variation, rather than being hooked up to electrodes, the learner gets punished by having to actively place his hand on a shock plate. At 150 volts, he refuses to continue doing that and so the experimenter instructs the teacher to force his hand onto the electrified plate. The results: The amount of obedience gradually declined as teacher-learner distance was reduced. Although in the first condition, the Remote condition, 65% were fully obedient, only 30% continued giving the whole range of shocks in the last one, the Touch-Proximity condition.
Implications of Obedience to Authority Studies
An important long-range consequence of Milgram’s research is the regulations that are now in place in the United States and many other countries to safeguard the well-being of the human research subject. The ethical controversy stirred up by the obedience experiments, in which many subjects underwent an unanticipated and highly stressful experience—together with a handful of other ethically questionable experiments— led the U.S. government to enact regulations governing human research in the mid-1970s. The centerpiece of these regulations is the requirement that any institution conducting research with human subjects have an institutional review board (IRB) that screens each research proposal to ensure that participants will not be harmed. Ironically, the IRBs themselves have become a focus of controversy, especially among social psychologists. Most would agree that, in principle, they play an important role. However, many researchers believe that sometimes IRBs are overzealous in carrying out their duties and disapprove experiments that are essentially benign and harmless, thereby stifling research that could potentially result in valuable advances in our knowledge.
Milgram’s productive career was a relatively short one. He died of heart failure on December 20, 1984, at age 51. But the legacy of his obedience experiments lives on, serving as continuing reminders of people’s extreme willingness to obey authorities. And, having been enlightened about this, people can try to be more vigilant in guarding themselves against unwelcome commands. When ordered to do something that is immoral or just plain wrong, stop and ask yourself, “Is this something I would do on my own initiative?”
- Blass, T. (Ed.). (2000). Obedience to authority: Current perspectives on the Milgram paradigm. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Blass, T. (2004). The man who shocked the world: The life and legacy of Stanley Milgram. New York: Basic Books.
- Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-378.
- Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority: An experimental view. New York: Harper & Row. (A 30th anniversary edition, with an added preface by Jerome Bruner, was published in 2004 by HarperCollins.)