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What They Never Taught You About Obedience to Authority

Do people really hurt others because they are told to by an authority figure?

Personal Collection
Source: Personal Collection

It was decades after WWII, and while the world was rebuilding itself, psychologists were busy climbing over each other in an attempt to understand how people could commit horrific acts of evil.

Was it the uniform? A charismatic leader? The psychology of evil, as it is tantalisingly referred to, certainly appeals to the armchair psychologist in us all. The question, as often posed by infamous psychologist Phillip Zimbardo, is simple: Why do people commit acts of evil?

In 1963, Stanley Milgram set out to answer this question. He wanted to test how far individuals would go in order to punish another individual when told to do so by an authoritative figure. The test was rather simple, which no doubt led to its lasting effects within psychological literature. Disguised as a learning experiment, participants were asked to administer electrical shocks to a stranger when they gave incorrect responses to scripted questions. The "shock machine" was labelled with steadily increasing voltages, beginning at 15 volts and increasing right up to 430 to 450 volts, with the last two volts labelled "XXX." In reality, the (hidden) learner was not receiving shocks, yet after each "mistake" the learner screamed with pain to give the illusion of being administered a shock.

The results of this study shocked the world and have been forever echoed in Psych 101 classes across the globe: 65 percent of the participants were willing to administer a lethal shock to the learner, even after the learner had stopped screaming in pain, falling eerily silent during subsequent shocks.

The results were championed as a harrowing explanation as to how the Third Reich could attempt to wipe out an entire race of people, or how the Communist regime could be responsible for the slaughter of millions of its own people. After all, as noted by a famous military psychologist:

“If this kind of obedience could be obtained with a lab coat and a clipboard by an authority figure who has been known for only a few minutes, how much more would the trappings of military authority and months of bonding accomplish?” (Grossman, 2009, p. 143)

It's a deeply concerning and chilling thought—do people really obey blindly to killing other people, all because they are told to by someone with authority?

Well, no, not really.

You are likely skeptical of this claim, and you should be. In fact, many undergrads wrestle with this study, for it does not "feel" like it would make sense. Of course, an individual's feelings on a matter don't dictate scientific evidence, but in this case, your intuition may be right.

For starters, the number of people willing to administer lethal shocks across separate days was in fact highly variable, with rates ranging from close to 0 percent up to 100 percent. Therefore the question is, if the conditions had a similar setup and participants were in fact responding to obedience to authority phenomenon, then why are the results so variable?

Some researchers suggest that the high levels of obedience may be due to identifying with the experimenter, and hence "the mission." In a 2012 study, researchers found that those who identified with the experimenter were more likely to conform, whereas those that identified with the learner were far less likely to conform. Participants were given a description of Milgram’s study, with 15 variants of levels of conformity. Based on these variations, the participants were asked to indicate whether they identified with the experimenter or the learner.

However, perhaps the most intriguing explanation is to focus on those who disobeyed, instead of those who obeyed. When participants hesitated to shock the learner, they were "prodded" by the experimenter to continue shocks. These "prods" were highly ineffective at eliciting the response to continue shocking.

As an example, the "prod" was used for 23 participants across two conditions and only occasioned two people to further shock, and only one who was fully obedient to shock until the end. When faced with "prod" four, a "prod" that led the participants to believe they had no choice but to administer the shocks, most participants responded either by asserting that they did indeed have a choice or by engaging with the experimenter in such a way they ultimately acknowledged that they did have a choice.

In contrast, however, when the experimenters went off script and attempted to negotiate with the participant by soothing them, the participants could be convinced to continue with the shocks. When you get right down to it, Milgram's studies showed arguments designed to convince and persuade seem to have more effect at eliciting a response from the participant than forced obedience by the experimenter. Indeed, the experimenter actually elicited obedience without a rigid order, and when a direct order was given, obedience failed.

Whether you think it's an issue of identity or negotiation, an uncomfortable truth rears its ugly head: The answer is not straightforward, nor black and white, and that makes us uncomfortable. We can't put evil into a nice little box with a bow around it and declare, "This right there, this is why people do bad things."

Instead, we must accept that we don't always understand or can't always predict why people do awful things—and that's uncomfortable because maybe we might be capable of such acts.


GROSSMAN, D., 2009. On killing: The psychological cost of learning to kill in war and society. 3rd ed. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.