Why Do People Follow Authoritarian Leaders?
Research shows why some people fall under their spell while others don’t.
Posted September 8, 2020 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
After the horrors of the Holocaust when so many obedient Germans followed Hitler and maintained Nazi concentration camps, psychologists began to study why people follow authoritarian leaders. Their research revealed five reasons, which remain powerful reminders today.
1. The Power of Authority. Too often, orders from people with positional power can overrule individual judgment. Psychologist Stanley Milgram’s landmark study showed how people mindlessly obeyed an authority figure. They followed his commands to administer potentially fatal shocks to a person in the next room whenever he gave a wrong answer to a test question. Despite the victim’s cries of pain, pleas to stop, and complaints about his heart condition, the vast majority (82.5%) of research participants obeyed the experimenter. While hearing the screams from the person next door, these participants kept pushing the button to deliver severe shocks increasing to the level of 450 volts. Milgram (1974) concluded that most people will follow an authority figure’s commands because our culture reinforces us for obedience.
Even though at the end of Milgram’s experiment, participants were told that the session was staged and the shocks were not real, institutional review boards prohibited such experiments in the future, concerned about severe stress to participants. Recently, psychologist Jerry Burger (2009) replicated Milgram’s study. This time he stopped the experiment when the “shocks” reached the 150-volt level, when the person in the next room began to cry out. He did this because 79% of Milgram’s participants who went past this point continued to the highest 450-volt level. Burger found that 70% of his participants were willing to continue the shocks after hearing the victim cry out. His analysis revealed the power of obedience as well as three other key factors: limited information, a gradual increase in demands, and avoiding personal responsibility.
2. The Power of Limited Information. Participants in Burger’s and Milgram’s studies found themselves in a new situation, not knowing what to expect (Burger, 2009; Milgram, 1974). Without other reliable sources of information, they were forced to rely only on the claims of the authority figure. Is it any wonder that authoritarian leaders seek to cut people off from valid information? They censor and discredit the press as well as the academic and scientific communities so that people are left with only their authoritarian propaganda.
3. The Power of Gradually Increasing Demands. Burger (2009) noted that these obedience experiments were designed with an incremental increase in shock level. Participants began with a relatively mild 15-volt shock, gradually progressing to a higher voltage level every time they shocked the person for making an error. How often do people begin with a relatively small action and then find themselves over their heads as demands escalate over time?
4. The Power of Avoiding Personal Responsibility. In the obedience experiments (Burger, 2009; Milgram, 1974), the experimenter told participants that he alone was responsible for any adverse effects on the person subjected to shocks. The participants were just “following orders,” able to avoid personal responsibility because they were obeying the authority figure. This frequently happens in real life, for example, when middle managers hide behind “company policy” to deny any responsibility for unfair treatment of the people around them.
5. The Power of Fear. After studying tyrannical regimes during World War II, historian Timothy Snyder (2017) recognized how often authoritarian leaders prey upon our fears. Discrediting factual information and drawing us into dark conspiracy theories, they produce a toxic mix of fear, polarization, scapegoating, and chronic anxiety that can undermine a free society.
Neuroscience research has explained why fear is such a powerful tool of authoritarians. Joseph LeDoux (1996) has found that our brains have two separate tracks for processing information. With what he calls “the high road,” we normally respond with our more thoughtful, cerebral pathway. Sensory information goes to the brain’s relay station, the thalamus, then up to the cerebral cortex, which processes the information before sending it to the amygdala, a small, almond-shaped region in the forebrain which generates an emotional response. But with potentially threatening sensory information, the thalamus defaults to the survival pathway that LeDoux calls the “low road.” It sends a message directly to the amygdala, which activates the stress reaction with a rush of fear. When we react from fear and take the low road, we’re not using our thought processes to analyze the situation but rather responding automatically to a supposed threat. In addition, when authoritarian leaders keep us fearful and emotionally off-balance, repeated stress can become underlying anxiety, more readily triggering us into new fear reactions. Chronic stress can shrink a part of the brain called the hippocampus, impairing our memory, making us forget essential information, even the names and faces of people around us. It can impair decision making and flexible planning by damaging the prefrontal cortex (LeDoux, 1996; McEwen, 2002). With our ability to think compromised, our fears can make us more easily manipulated by authoritarian leaders.
But as history has also shown, not everyone falls under the emotional spell of authoritarian leaders. Research shows how we can resist such manipulation by developing greater mindfulness and existential courage.
The Power of Mindfulness. Neuroscience research has shown how mindfulness can enhance our cognitive ability, strengthening those areas of the brain that regulate emotion, bringing us greater clarity and balance (Hölzel et al, 2011). One mindfulness practice, especially powerful in reducing fear, is the technique of consciously recognizing and labeling our emotions (“anxious,” “confused,” “fearful”), which reduces amygdala activation (Vago, & Silbersweig, 2012). By giving words to our emotions we move away from limbic reactivity (“the low road”) by activating higher brain regions that deal with language and meaning (see discussion in Dreher, 2015). The next time we feel stressed we could simply pause to take a slow, deep breath and label what we’re feeling. Then we could tell ourselves to gently ease through the stress, continuing to breathe slowly and deeply as we release our fear (Childre & Rozman, 2006).
The Power of Existential Courage. Psychologist Salvatore Maddi’s research has found that people who develop existential courage are not susceptible to emotional manipulation by authoritarian leaders (Maddi et al, 2006). He has found that we can develop such courage, also known as hardiness, by increasing our capacity for commitment, control, and challenge (Maddi, 2006). Staying committed and present to the events around us, no matter how challenging, can give us a greater sense of presence and focus. When we have a sense of control, we feel we can make a difference, no matter how difficult the situation we find ourselves in (See Dolinski et al, 2017). Seeing events as challenges, we can approach stressful situations as problems to be solved, as existential courage enables us to learn, grow, and develop greater understanding.
The good news is that mindfulness and hardiness can be increased with greater awareness and practice. By becoming more mindful of ourselves and the world around us, seeking valid sources of information, believing in our ability to learn, developing greater understanding, and trusting in our own judgment, we can resist the threat of authoritarianism and create a more hopeful future.
This post is for informational purposes and should not substitute for psychotherapy with a qualified professional.
Burger, J. M. (2009). Replicating Milgram: Would people still obey today? American Psychologist, 64 (1), 1-11.
Childre, D., & Rozman, D. (2006). Transforming anxiety: The HeartMath solution for overcoming fear and worry and creating serenity. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
Dolinski,D., Grzyb, T., Folwarczny,M., Grzybała, P., Krzyszycha, K., Martynowska, K., & Trojanowsk, J. (2017). Would you deliver an electric shock in 2015? Obedience in the experimental paradigm developed by Stanley Milgram in the 50 years following the original studies. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 8 (8). 927-933.
Dreher, D. E. (2015). Leading with compassion: A moral compass for our time. In T. G. Plante (Ed.). The psychology of compassion and cruelty: Understanding the emotional, spiritual, and religious influences (pp. 73-87). Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.
Hölzel, B. K., Lazar, S. W., Gard, T., Schuman-Olivier, Z., Vago., D. R., & Ott, U. (2011). How does mindfulness work? Proposing mechanisms of action from a conceptual and neural perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6, 537-559.
LeDoux, J. (1996). The emotional brain. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Maddi, S. R. (2006). Hardiness: the courage to grow from stresses. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(3), 160-168.
Maddi, S.R., Harvey, R. H., Khoshaba, D. M., Lu, J. L., Persico, M., Brow, M. (2006). The personality construct of hardiness, III: Relationships with repression, innovativeness, authoritarianism, and performance. Journal of Personality, 74 (2), 575-597
McEwen, B. S. with Lasley, E. N. (2002). The end of stress as we know it. Washington, D. C.: Joseph Henry Press.
Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority: An experimental view. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
Snyder, T. (2017). On tyranny: Twenty lessons from the twentieth century. New York, NY: Tim Duggan Books.
Vago, D. R. & Silbersweig, D. A. (2012). Self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-transcendence (S-ART): A framework for understanding the neurobiological mechanisms of mindfulness. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6. doi: 10.3389/fnhuum.2012.00296.
Photo by Erika Fletcher on Unsplash, person holding book on bookshelf, used with permission. See https://unsplash.com/@joyshotsphotography