Obedience to authority

Bit of a change from neuroscience now to look at one of the most famous areas of social psychology. This aspect was made famous by a series of highly controversial experiments by Stanley Milgram in the 1960s, which investigated why people obey authority figures.

To set the scene a bit, a lot of the social psychology work in the 50s and 60s looked at aspects of obedience, as following the 2nd World War people wanted to know why some of the officers carried out orders to kill innocent people without question – were they just evil?

In his first experiment, Milgram recruited male participants and told them they were taking part in a study investigating the effects of punishment on learning (when it was infact measuring obedience) . They met with another participant, who was actually an actor, and lots were drawn to see who would be the ‘learner’ and who would be the ‘teacher’. These lots were fixed so that the participant always played the role of the teacher.

The diagram below shows the set up of the experiment:


T = teacher

L= learner

E = experimenter (or actor who player part of a scientist) – this is the authority figure.

The teacher was told that the learner had to memorise word associations, and that they were to test them. If the learner got an answer wrong, they had to give them an electric shock. No shocks were actually administered, but the teacher was given a sample shock at 45v so they’d think the apparatus was real.

Here’s the clever bit of this experiment: each time the learner got a question wrong, the strength of the shock increased by 15v, and the teacher did this by pressing down another switch on the generator (shown below). This gave the participant high levels of control over their actions, but the fact that it was only a small increase each time encouraged them to carry on getting higher.


As you can see, there are labels under the switches explaining how dangerous the shocks are. These were there to see if the participants would realise the harm they were potentially inflicting on the learner. When shocks were carried out, the learner could be heard shouting in pain, demanding to be let out when they reached 300v, and then falling silent and refusing to answer. The participant was told to treat any unanswered question as a wrong answer, so the shock value increased further.

Before the experiment, it was thought that only 1/1000 people would continue to give a lethal strength shock to the learner… in fact 2/3 carried on right until 450v, marked XXX on the machine.

But why would these people potentially cause so much harm to another person? This experiment shows how powerful following orders can become – if at any time the participants became uncomfortable and questioned if the learner was okay, the ‘scientist’ would say something along the lines of “the experiment requires you must continue”. Only if the participant questioned 5 times was the experiment stopped.

The participants clearly felt obliged to obey the authority figure, perhaps because he looked official in a white lab coat or the fact that the study was carried out in Yale University, with a high reputation. Also, the fact that they were paid before the experiment could have meant they felt like they had to carry on.

It is clear that these participants were not evil – it is very unlikely that the sample all happened to be psychopaths. But they would still give another person a lethal shock if told to by an authority figure.

To quote Milgram himself: “Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process”.


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